Journey to purpose

In the spirit of one of our institution’s core pursuits, we share the stories of three alumni from three decades who, shaped by their experience at Exeter, find true meaning and fulfillment in their work and life.

January 24, 2024

At the heart of the Academy’s mission is to unite goodness and knowledge and inspire youth to lead purposeful lives. Not only does living with purpose often uplift others, research shows that people driven by purpose — whether in work, family, spiritual practice, creative endeavors or something else — experience greater life satisfaction, have fewer health problems and even live longer. In the spirit of one of our institution’s core pursuits, we share the stories of three alumni from three decades — an attorney and law professor, a documentary filmmaker and an Episcopal priest with a military background — who, shaped by their experience at Exeter, find true meaning and fulfillment in their work and life.

Justice & Change

James E. Coleman Jr. '66; P '16

Growing up in segregated Charlotte, North Carolina, James Coleman ’66 witnessed injustice and discrimination — and was moved to fight it. During his senior year in high school, Coleman worked for local civil rights lawyer Julius LeVonne Chambers, who successfully litigated a case forcing the Charlotte public schools to desegregate. “His office and home were bombed,” Coleman says. “To me, that meant he was threatening the status quo, and that being a lawyer was a way to do that.” 

Coleman has carried the lessons learned that year through his long career as an attorney, both in private practice and government service. As a professor at Duke University School of Law and director of the school’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic, he helps students champion the wrongly accused. “Trying to remedy a miscarriage of justice is one of the highest callings we have as lawyers,” he says.

The summer before interning with Chambers, Coleman attended Exeter for a five-week academic enrichment program. It was a summer of firsts: his first experience living away from home; his first classes with white students and teachers; his first discussions around a Harkness table. Drawn by the educational opportunities Exeter afforded, he returned for a postgraduate year in 1965.

In an essay entitled “Living in the Shadow of American Racism,” published in 2022 in Duke’s Law and Contemporary Problems journal, Coleman recalls writing English essays at Exeter about growing up in a segregated country. A classmate, the grandson of a U.S. president, wrote about traveling with his grandfather. “Such diversity was not the purpose of my admission to Exeter,” he wrote, “but it was a natural consequence ... facilitated by the Harkness method, where we were all equal around the table.

After graduating from Harvard University and Columbia Law School, Coleman worked in various positions in the public sector, including deputy general counsel for the U.S. Department of Education. He later joined Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, a law firm specializing in federal court and administrative legislation. Active in the firm’s pro bono program, he advised civil rights organizations and represented clients in discrimination cases.

Trying to remedy a miscarriage of justice is one of the highest callings we have as lawyers."

In his most high-profile pro bono case, Coleman drew heavy criticism for representing convicted serial killer Ted Bundy in Bundy’s final death penalty appeal. “My job is to protect my client’s constitutional rights,” Coleman told the Orlando Sentinel at the time. He went on to campaign against the death penalty, and says he saw the Bundy case as a way to draw attention to the potential for public opinion to exert influence in capital cases.

In another case with intense media coverage, Coleman chaired an internal committee investigating accusations of rape against several members of the Duke University men’s lacrosse team in 2006. Again, he focused on the need to not rush to judgment. “We wanted to make sure the facts were accurate,” Coleman says. “It’s easy to convict an innocent person, and, in a sexual assault case, it’s particularly hard to prove after a conviction that the perpetrator is innocent.” Charges against the team members were ultimately dropped because of inconsistencies in the accuser’s testimony and ethical violations by the district attorney.

Coleman now devotes himself to teaching and working with law students seeking to overturn wrongful convictions, like that of Charles Ray Finch, a North Carolina man accused of killing a gas station owner in 1976. Coleman and his students worked for 18 years on Finch’s case, litigating it in state and federal courts. Finch was finally released in 2019.

“If there’s merit to a client’s claim of innocence and we can pursue the claim, we don’t get rid of the case because it gets difficult,” Coleman says. One of his students on the case became involved in restorative justice work as a prosecutor and was recently named a North Carolina district court judge. “Her career reflects what I hope for my students: that they’ll stay involved in criminal justice issues,” Coleman says.

He describes himself as a “happy warrior,” finding passion in his work but not taking himself too seriously. “It’s the most realistic way to approach difficult litigation,” he says. “To have a sense of humor and not lose sight of the work’s human element.”

 – Debbie Kane

Storytelling & Commentary

Julie Dunfey '76

In February 2020, Julie Dunfey found herself in the Galapagos Islands, mulling over whether to produce another documentary with her longtime collaborator, Ken Burns, before retiring. The proposed film would tell the story of the American buffalo, or bison: its significance to Indigenous people of the Great Plains, the devastating impact of European-American settlement and efforts to bring the species back from the brink. 

“I was in some tiny museum, looking at evidence of tortoises that had gone extinct,” Dunfey recalls of her time in the Galapagos. “When you’re in a place like that, you’re so aware of biology, animal evolution, this whole notion of extinction. I thought, [the story of the bison] is such an American tale of de-extinction. It’s about our relationship to the natural world, which we ignore at our peril... but it’s also about our relationship to each other, as humans.” Drawn to the idea of sharing one more uniquely American story with millions of public television viewers, Dunfey put her retirement on hold, and signed on to produce the film.

Since she was a child, Dunfey has been fascinated by the American story. At Exeter, where she was one of only 10 girls in the prep class in 1972, she took every history course she could. “What Exeter really taught me was how to think and how to write,” Dunfey says. “It was the defining educational experience of my life.”

Just before starting her master’s degree in history at Stanford University, Dunfey interned at WGBH, Boston’s public television station. Working on a series about the Vietnam War showed her she could tell important stories about history in a more collaborative way, and in a way that could potentially reach more people than the scholarly work she had envisioned for herself. She cold-called Burns, a New Hampshire filmmaker whose work had begun to gain notice at the time. Although he didn’t immediately have a job for her, the phone call led to a nearly 40-year collaboration, with Dunfey moving back to her home state after grad school to produce for Burns’ company, Florentine Films.

What Exeter really taught me was how to think and how to write."

Dunfey won her first Emmy Award as co-producer of The Civil War (1990), a nine-part documentary that attracted some 40 million viewers — a public television record that still stands. By the time that series aired, she had embarked on starting a family. “Ken and I jokingly say I took a 16-year maternity leave,” Dunfey says. During that “leave,” she had three children, consulted on film projects and served as an Exeter trustee for 11 years, including four as vice president.

She returned to work full time in 2006, helping produce acclaimed miniseries like The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (2009), The Dust Bowl (2012) and Country Music (2019), all of which drew viewership numbers in the tens of millions. With each project, Dunfey traveled around the country meeting people of all ages and backgrounds; mined libraries and personal photo collections; and worked with cinematographers to capture images that breathed life into different chapters of the American story. “I love going into archives ... finding all the things we need, and sometimes finding things that people haven’t seen before,” Dunfey says.

Of all the films Dunfey has produced, she feels especially connected to The Dust Bowl, for which she interviewed many people in their 80s and 90s — around the same age as her parents at the time — knowing she and her colleagues might be the last ones to capture their stories. “That was very meaningful,” she recalls. “These were all people who grew up not knowing how and when the Depression would end, or how World War II would turn out.”

Dunfey celebrated her retirement shortly before The American Buffalo aired on PBS in October. She plans to channel her knowledge and connections made during the filmmaking process into volunteer efforts on behalf of bison rehabilitation.

“My hope is that I can contribute in some hands-on way because I believe very strongly that we need to rewild this animal,” Dunfey says. “It’s one thing to save it from extinction; it’s another to restore its ecological habitat and make it wild again. That’s something that is of great interest to me, and it feels like it might be a good moment.

– Sarah Pruitt '95

Faith & Service

Leslie Nuñez Steffensen ’85

In September, the Rev. Canon Leslie Nuñez Steffensen ’85 joined tens of thousands of people headed to Burning Man, the annual gathering of artists, makers and others exploring community and creative self-expression in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. After 11 years as an Episcopal priest, she says, “My hope was to get back to the basics of priesting and the essence of chaplaincy — meeting people where they are and loving them as they are.” 

Decked out in bright pink hair extensions, matching sunglasses and a “Holy Chic” T-shirt, Steffensen welcomed all those interested in conversation, connection and prayer to her “camp.” As an offering to the Burning Man community, she and her husband, Kirk, had designed and built a labyrinth for visitors to navigate. “I thought the experience would ‘burn the burnout’ from my system,” Steffensen says. “It did!”

A desire to find and build community is what led Steffensen to the priesthood. Like her Burning Man maze, her path was circuitous. She is one of five members of her immediate family to attend Exeter, including her father, Charles Nuñez ’57; brothers Varrick ’77, a retired U.S. Naval officer and librarian, and Timothy ’79, an Episcopal priest; and sister Libby ’93, a teacher. 

Service is part of her family legacy. “My parents were very involved in the Episcopal Church,” she says. “We Nuñezes all have a very strong faith and are dedicated to community service.”

Exeter expanded Steffensen’s mind intellectually and its lessons around non sibi equipped her for ministry and public service. “I graduated in the ’80s, when many careers were about money,” she says. “I could’ve had a lovely life simply doing something adventurous. Exeter gave me a sense of a larger purpose.”

Becoming intentionally uncomfortable pushes you into new growth."

Steffensen graduated from Johns Hopkins University in three years, then joined the U.S. Navy. After emerging from Officer Candidate School, she became an aviation intelligence officer. “I chased Soviet submarines,” she says. She met her husband, also a naval officer, while serving in the military and ultimately left to help raise their three children.

While pregnant with her second child, Steffensen reconnected with the Episcopal Church through talks about faith with a local priest. “My faith came through community involvement,” she says. As the Navy moved them to different locations, she volunteered with her local church and held various positions in church leadership, then pursued a master’s degree in theology at Virginia Theological Seminary.

In the mid-2000s, she embarked on a church mission in Dodoma, Tanzania, teaching theology and biblical studies at Msalato Theological College. It was a trip she was well-prepared for. “[Spending] my Exeter upper year abroad in Barcelona gave me this extreme bravery and an opportunity to meet others who were different from me,” Steffensen says. In Africa, she discovered a love for teaching, as well as a facility for translating theology into a different culture, as she helped train Tanzanian students in Anglican ministry.

Once she returned stateside, Steffensen pursued a second master’s degree in divinity and became ordained a priest in 2012. As assistant to the rector at Grace Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Virginia, she ministered to the church’s Latino congregation, La Gracia, helping them develop their sense of leadership and mission in the parish and wider community.

Steffensen’s most recent role drew on her military experience, her commitment to faith and her dedication to serving others. As Episcopal Church canon to the bishop suffragan for armed forces and federal ministries, she provided support to Episcopal chaplains who minister to service members and their families. “It was sometimes difficult work,” she says, noting that military chaplains are under enormous stress, coping with deployments, social upheaval and, more recently, the COVID pandemic. “Mental health issues can affect your work in the military, and I wanted to create a safe space for chaplains.”

Her future plans include returning to Burning Man in 2024. “There’s so much to explore and experience in life,” she says. “Becoming intentionally uncomfortable pushes you into new growth, personally, spiritually and professionally.

– Debbie Kane


This article first appeared in the Winter 2024 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.