Exeter Summer program hones tomorrow's leaders

Irene and Charles Hamm '55; P'87 broaden their signature curriculum to all Summer learners.

Sarah Pruitt '95
August 11, 2022

On a sunny day in July, a group of Exeter Summer students headed off campus to the Browne Center at the University of New Hampshire for a day of trust-building and team-bonding exercises. Whether working their way through the ropes course or reclining carefully on a suspended tree branch, the students made sure to have each other’s backs — and got to know each other along the way.

“We had to work together to achieve a specific goal,” says Jack Lu, a rising eighth grader from Sarasota, Florida, of the field trip. “It really helped to build bonds, as we needed to trust each other to literally stay safe.”

This summer, Lu was one of the students taking part in the first official session of the Irene F. Hamm P’87 ACCESS EXETER Leadership Program, an immersive cluster of courses for seventh and eighth graders focused on learning the principles and theory of leadership as well as acquiring practical skills for effective activism and advocacy. One of nine clusters in the five-week ACCESS EXETER program, it was created thanks to the generosity of Irene Hamm P’87, a lifelong educator who helped her husband, Charles J. Hamm ’55, found his namesake leadership-focused program for Exeter Summer’s UPPER SCHOOL in 2008.

A summer of growth

In courses entitled Youth Leadership and My Voice Matters, students in the ACCESS cluster explore the relationships between leaders and their followers, read literature written by leaders in society and write their own essays and action plans. In a third course, The Art and Science of Creating Real Change, they learn to channel their identities and desire for change through both artistic expression and hands-on action steps.

The combination of good leadership and good followership has always, and increasingly, struck me as being critical to life on earth."
Charles J. Hamm '55

“We're starting from a really personal space for them: What are their values? What do they believe in? What are the causes that move them?” says Ben Cromwell, who teaches The Art and Science of Change, as well as a Practical Leadership seminar in the UPPER SCHOOL. “From there, we try and expand outward as we go.”

In addition to their coursework and their trip to the Browne Center, students in both Hamm Leadership Programs visited the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate in Boston, where they participated in a mock debate over voting rights legislation. While they were in the city, the students also toured a series of giant murals created by artists in association with the organization Sea Walls to bring awareness to issues of environmentalism, especially protecting the ocean.

Each ACCESS student teams with their older counterparts for a capstone project, through which they aim to make a meaningful impact on the Exeter Summer community in some way. Lu and his capstone group created a peer-to-peer tutoring program for fellow Exeter Summer students, while Garima Biyani, a rising ninth grader from Bellevue, Washington, worked with her group to plant seeds in Exeter’s community garden.

Learning to listen

Irene Hamm, who earned her master’s degree in special education from Columbia University, spent 32 years teaching students from preschool through high school ages. After watching the Hamm Leadership Program’s success in the UPPER SCHOOL, she’s excited to see it extended to the younger group.

“I think [the program is] about teaching the students how to work with other people instead of just going their own way,” Irene notes. “Having taught seventh and eighth graders, I think they have to learn to listen to other people and yet still have their opinions, and when they approach others, approach them with thoughtfulness — and with facts.”

For Charles Hamm, whose namesake UPPER SCHOOL program recently celebrated its 14th year, his initial inspiration to create it still holds true. “The combination of good leadership and good followership has always, and increasingly, struck me as being critical to life on earth,” Charles says. “If we can jumpstart a sense of thinking, considering and approaching an understanding of what leadership might be — even if you don’t become a leader — it will enhance your ability to be a responsible follower.”

We're starting from a really personal space for them: What are their values? What do they believe in? What are the causes that move them?”
Ben Cromwell, instructor in Hamm Leadership Program

As the five-week program draws to a close, Jack Lu has taken the message to heart. “Through this experience, I've fully come to realize that leaders may be the ones who get most of the fame and most of the attention,” Lu says. “But without the followers, they really can't achieve anything. The followers are equally — if not more — important than the leaders.”

Tools for the future

Cromwell says his ACCESS EXETER students come to the Hamm Leadership Program with a variety of motivations, from future leadership plans to simply connecting with the idea of the cluster. Many bring a passion for social justice to their work, and are inspired by Harkness discussions and other activities focused on gender equality, LGBTQ+ rights, racial equality, climate change and other key issues. By the end of their capstone projects, the students were “running community meetings, engaging their peers, generating ideas,” Cromwell recalls. “They really stepped up and talked in depth about the things they had done personally to advance these causes.”

 “I’ve always kind of been more like head up in the clouds, but this [experience] has brought me down to earth to a degree,” Biyani says. “I know a lot about social justice, but I haven't really done much. When I get back, I think putting my ideas into action — volunteering, maybe getting involved in some organizations, or starting groups at my school — is definitely something that I intend to do.”


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