Tommy Cefalu '16
“I love talking about the big ideas. What is life all about? Why do we do what we do? Why go to school? Why learn?”
It’s late afternoon, H format, at the end of a glorious spring day in May. While his classmates make the mental transition from the athletic fields back into academic mode, Tommy Cefalu ’16, then an upper, picks up The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon and opens to a poem that has him stymied. “I’m really struggling with this line,” he confesses, looking around the table with a warm smile that invites his fellow students to work through their confusion together. Even in his less-than-sure moments, Tommy is appealingly open, a combination that draws out his peers and puts them at ease.
That unassuming poise — which he admits might have veered toward over-confidence until tempered by the reality of prep year — is coupled with a generous spirit. Those qualities served him well at Exeter, where he founded and then led the Exeter Entrepreneurship Club for two years, worked as a sports editor for The Exonian, and served as a day student listener during his upper and senior years.
But it was Tommy’s innate desire to dive deeply into the unknowable that took him in directions he never expected. Over the course of his four years at Exeter, he discovered a yen for exploring life’s essential questions — found first through the study of literature and philosophy, then developed more fully in classes taught by the Religion Department.
“I’ve grown a deep appreciation for the liberal arts,” he says. “I love talking about the big ideas. What is life all about? Why do we do what we do? Why go to school? Why learn?”
During his senior year, Tommy signed up for as many religion courses as he could fit into his schedule, including three during his final term at Exeter. He loved how the discussions that started in classes would spill out into the dinner hour: “We would argue for hours. Senior year, those conversations on politics, existentialism — topics crucial to becoming a person — having those conversations in Grill and getting heated as we would in class, those are some of my favorite memories.”
Chair of the Religion Department Peter Vorkink, who taught Tommy every term of his senior year, watched him evolve as a student and a thinker throughout those months.
“Tentative at first,” he recalls, “by spring term, I saw in Tommy a full-blown Harkness self-confidence, a young man able to speak his mind with clarity [while] listening intently, sharing helpfully, adding immeasurably to the flow of the conversation with his considerable textual insights … such that the total was much greater than the sum of its individual parts.”
Tommy found more than his voice in those classes. He found his people: “Existentialism was absolutely my favorite class here. I’ve met people who care about the world, who care about the ability to change it, care about figuring out what life is about — and figuring it out through others’ perspectives.”
Last May, Tommy was awarded second place for The Abbie Manton Polleys Memorial Fund Prize in recognition of his “significant achievement in the curricular offerings of the Religion Department.” He is currently taking advantage of a gap year before matriculating to New York University and has been invited to participate in a prestigious program of studies in philosophy, politics and economics at the Oxford University, through the John Locke Institute next spring. Both the prize and the acceptance are worthy accomplishments, but for Tommy, the bigger achievement is the way he’s grown as a person through respectful and spirited discourse.
“I miss Exeter so much,” he says. “I feel like I became a real, high-functioning person there and I owe a lot to many teachers and friends who were such a big part of that. They’ve formed me as a person and they influence a lot of my thinking and self-reflection today.”