Academics afield

Students pursue purpose-driven learning at home and abroad over summer.

By
Sarah Pruitt '95
November 4, 2021

Zander Galli '22 helps wildlife experts with Giraffe Conservation Foundation tag giraffes in the Namib Desert in northwest Namibia.

Energy and excitement filled Love Gymnasium on Sept. 10, 2021, as the entire school community of students and faculty gathered for the first time in 18 months for Opening Assembly. In the front rows, members of the class of 2022 listened as Principal Bill Rawson ’71; P’08 offered a reminder of Exeter’s mission “to unite goodness and knowledge and inspire youth from every quarter to lead purposeful lives.”

But as all Exonians know, the pursuit of goodness and knowledge doesn’t begin after Opening Assembly, and it doesn’t end after that last class in late May. Summer may be for rest, relaxation, family and friends — but it also offers many students, including those featured here, the precious time and space to continue the pursuit of learning and to follow their sense of purpose into the wider world.

Zander Galli ’22: Guardian of biodiversity

For as long as he can remember, Zander Galli ’22 has been interested in wildlife and nature. After his lower year, Galli planned a trip to Africa, where he initially thought he’d be working with cheetahs. In fact, he headed to the Munyawana Conservancy in southeastern South Africa for a conservation project involving pangolins, the rare insect-eating mammals that are covered in overlapping scales resembling the leaves of an artichoke. “They have this entrancing aura that’s hard to describe if you’re not right next to it,” Galli says. “It’s like stumbling on some otherworldly alien, they’re just so strange and beautiful.”

While often compared to anteaters, pangolins are in fact more closely related to the Carnivora order, which includes cats, dogs and bears. Their unique scales are made of keratin, the same protein that forms human hair and fingernails. Despite having no proven medicinal value, the scales are highly sought after for use in traditional cures for ailments ranging from arthritis to cancer. Due to a robust poaching trade over the past 10 to 15 years, pangolins are now believed to be the most-trafficked mammal in the world.

Though the COVID-19 pandemic scuttled all travel in the summer of 2020, Galli returned to the same conservancy this summer. His job was to help rehabilitate three young pangolins that had been rescued from the poaching trade and reintroduce them into the wild. Pangolins are normally solitary, nocturnal creatures, but these orphaned animals were completely dependent on Galli and his colleagues to dig up ant and termite nests for them to feed on. “At night, you bring them back and sleep right next to them, because you have to keep them warm and make sure they don’t get sick,” Galli says. “It’s very stressful for them.”

In addition to the threat of poaching, “the climate crisis is really affecting the areas that pangolins live, especially the drier areas,” Galli says. “When the rainfall is much lower, the insects are way less prevalent, so the pangolins have to spend more time out of their shelters looking for them.” Not only are the animals exerting more energy and risking starvation, but they’re more easily hunted when they’re in the open. All eight pangolin species native to Asia and Africa are currently classified as threatened with extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Galli also spent a month this summer in the Namib Desert in northwest Namibia, working with the Giraffe Conservation Foundation to track and place satellite tags on giraffes. “The foundation used the tagging data to track the giraffe migration between the Namibian and Angolan border and set up community conservation programs,” he explains.

After taking Advanced Biology his upper year, Galli is now working with Science Instructor Townley Chisholm on a senior project to create a new biology curriculum. “It connects natural disruption to zoonotic diseases, like COVID and Ebola and HIV, and explains how the status quo of natural destruction will probably lead to more diseases like those,” he says. Galli hopes to test the curriculum in Exeter biology classrooms before rolling it out to a wider audience. 

In addition to his conservation interests, Galli is on the wrestling and crew teams, serves as co-head of the Daniel Webster Debate Society and sits on the Community Conduct Committee. Next spring, he will travel to the nation’s capital for the Washington Intern Program and plans to intern at an environ-mental law or policy organization.

In a TEDx talk Galli gave at Exeter in the spring of 2019, he advised fellow Exonians to “think of biodiversity as a massive Jenga tower” in which every species is important to the solidity of the tower. He still sees this metaphor as an apt one for illustrating the need to take climate change — as well as the plight of the pangolin and other threatened animals — seriously.

“I think the most important thing for humans is to think of ourselves as part of nature and recognize and appreciate how our actions have effects we can’t even picture,” Galli says. “We just don’t know enough about how all these ecosystems function, and how the entire biosphere keeps us alive. We don’t know when that tipping point will be.”  

 

Emma Finn ’22: Champion of ancient Greek

Emma Finn ’22 started taking Latin in sixth grade and chose to come to Exeter in part to continue her studies. In pursuit of a Classics diploma, she enrolled in her first Greek course during her upper year and was immediately hooked. “I love Latin, but for me Greek is a more fluid language,” Finn says. “There are these little words called particles that can convey sarcasm and nuance in a way you can only really get while speaking in English.”

When Finn heard that Matthew Hartnett, chair of the Department of Classical Languages, was looking for a student to work remotely over the summer to revise ΑΓΩΝ (pronounced “ahg-own”), the ancient Greek text-book he wrote that is used in Exeter’s introductory Greek courses, she jumped at the opportunity. “My goal for the project was not just to make it easier to learn, but to make people really fall in love with the language the way I did,” she says.

In addition to reformatting the appendix, indexing prepositions and other tasks, Finn added new sentences to the textbook to ensure better distribution of vocabulary words. She particularly enjoyed researching and writing short biographies of the authors whose texts are included in the book, hopefully inspiring her fellow Greek scholars to read more of their work.

“It’s been great practice to see the curriculum and the material through a different lens,” she says. “I’ve always loved storytelling, and it’s been really rewarding to shift from being a consumer of knowledge to being able to produce it in ways that will have an impact on other students’ learning.” 

“Emma came up with a lot of ways to make learning the vocabulary and grammar easier, including little mnemonic devices, tricks and tips,” Hartnett says. “Because she can still see Greek through a student’s eyes, she helped us present the material in a way that’s easier for students to understand.”

Finn’s academic interests also led her to Exeter History Instructor Aykut Kilinc, who enlisted her help in designing lesson plans and curriculum for his economics course. “We read this really interesting book that’s basically a comprehensive history of U.S. trade policy,” she says. “Which I know doesn’t sound interesting, but it turns out to be a great way of looking at the broader political shifts in the United States over time.” 

On top of those two projects, Finn found time to complete a summer internship for the New-York Historical Society. Working remotely from her home in Maryland, she wrote a blog post about the pioneering female journalist Ruth Hale for the muse-um’s Center for Women’s History and helped develop lesson plan content for Museums for Digital Learning, an educational platform that provides K-12 schools with curated resources.

For her academic excellence, Finn was recently selected as a Coolidge Scholar, an honor that comes with a scholarship for four years of under-graduate study at any accredited college or university in the United States. Coolidge Scholars are also selected based on a demonstrated interest in public policy and a record of humility and service. In Finn’s case, she has been involved in the Exeter Student Service Organization since her prep year and is now the co-president. She’s also co-head of Exeter’s Economics Club and Microfinance Club, which provides small loans to entrepreneurs in the developing world.

Before the pandemic, Finn frequently volunteered to care for abandoned horses at the Hidden Pond Equine Rescue in Brentwood, New Hampshire. “The goal is to socialize the horses and get them used to being around humans again so they can be adopted,” Finn says. An experienced equestrian who started riding when she was 6 years old, Finn competed in horse shows on weekends during her lower year and hopes to resume riding and volunteering with horses during the new school year.

Janessa Vargas ’22: Advocate for immigrants

As a first-generation Mexican American, Janessa Vargas ’22 has always been aware of how pervasive questions around immigration status can be in families and communities like her own. While at home in New Jersey near the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, she started working with Make the Road, a nonprofit organization that focuses on empowering working-class and immigrant communities. Building on that experience, Vargas dove deep into researching U.S. immigration policy this summer through a fellowship with the National Advocacy Institute at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

With Make the Road, Vargas helped people apply for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the Obama-era program that protects from deportation certain undocumented people brought to the United States as children and allows them to work. “For my [ACLU] research proposal, I asked the question, ‘How do we achieve citizenship for people who are left out of this very specific pool that the government or politicians think are worthy or have ‘earned’ their citizenship?’” Vargas explains. 

She interviewed immigration lawyers and community organizers, both in her area and in other regions of the country, to get a more complex picture of the issue. “The way I tackled the research project was bringing humanity to policy,” she says. “I would mix people’s interviews — their realities — with the law and present the human perspective. I tried to show how a lack of citizenship and a lack of stability in one’s immigration status is so pervasive in people’s lives, and in the lives of my family and my community.”

In July, around the time Vargas was preparing to present her research (virtually) to some 200 people, a federal judge in Texas ruled that DACA was unlawful and suspended the program. As the debate over immigration reform continues in Congress, Vargas will travel to Saint Peter’s University in New Jersey to speak at a campus event on immigration in September. She also plans to head to Washington, D.C., for events surrounding the vote on the planned budget, which she hopes will include “the pathway to citizenship for millions of people.”

Vargas rounded out her summer with a stint doing research for the Greater Good Institute, a youth-led think tank, as well as classes on literature and philosophy through the Yale Young Global Scholars Program. For good measure, she attended a five-day virtual course on critical race theory at the African American Policy Forum, led by the scholar and writer Kimberlé Crenshaw.

At Exeter, Vargas has immersed herself in the ongoing work devoted to promoting anti-racism and diversity, equity and inclusion on campus. She is head of diversity and equity for Student Council; co-head of the Afro-Latinx Exonian Society, Feminist Union and Democratic Club; and has worked as a student proctor in the Office of Multicultural Affairs. She also co-leads Model UN, which she’s been involved with since her prep year. “Like most Exonians, I’m pretty overcommitted,” Vargas says.

“But even though I’m spread in a lot of places, I feel like it’s all within the same area of work.”  

She’s seen the positive impact of anti-racist work in the Exeter curriculum, as well as in Model UN. “I saw the board before me take accountability and take people out of spaces where they were causing harm, admit that wrong, and make clear that things need to change,” Vargas says. “Now our board is made up mostly of women of color, so I’ve seen that transformation in a club where I probably would have least expected it.”

Vargas is also excited to begin working with GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network), a nationwide organization that seeks to protect and create positive environments for LGBTQ students in K-12 schools. “I think the crux of my Exeter career is making sure that it’s a better place for people like me after I’ve left it,” she says. Referring to the oft-quoted statement made by one of her heroes, James Baldwin, about America, Vargas says she too believes that “if you love something, then you criticize it and make it better.” 

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