Preps break the ice on their Exeter experience

Virtual orientation opens the class of 2024's Academy account.

Patrick Garrity
September 8, 2020

I would cry if I lost my phone.

The admission fills the computer screens of a dozen ninth graders. Several hands go up.

I am a hugger, comes the next declaration. A few tentative hands admit to it.

I avoid conflict. This show of hands opens the door to a teaching moment.

“In community living, you’re going to want to figure out how to be assertive and deal with conflict early on,” says Ariana Wermer-Colan, a trained mental health specialist and the moderator of this session of a virtual orientation program being presented to all 214 members of Exeter’s class of 2024.

For the past three years, this gathering of new Exonians has occurred on the ropes course of the University of New Hampshire’s Browne Center. This fall, the programming came via Zoom, with many of the preps “meeting” each other Tuesday for the first time in small groups while getting a dose of what at least the first month of their Exeter experience will consist: Remote learning. Classes begin Thursday, but none of these preps will arrive on campus until early October. Some have opted to stay remote throughout the fall term.

Virtually or in person, orientation is intended to be an icebreaker, and Wermer-Colan establishes the goals for the session straight away: Connect with other ninth-graders and build community; practice the Harkness method of discourse; and have fun. She steers the group through a series of quick introduction exercises, asking them to mark their hometowns on a map and to play along to a round of “Have you ever…?”

Because this year’s ninth-graders will navigate their first days as Exonians electronically, the orientation also includes a crash course in Zoom norms, best practices and etiquette. Wermer-Colan champions the importance of body language and encourages all participants to accentuate points with hand gestures and other signals of interest and engagement.

The session also includes a series of breakout rooms that puts classmates into pairs to promote one-on-one discussions. Later, the full group collaborates to try to solve a puzzle.

Once they arrive on campus, the same students will reconvene — possibly in-person at The Browne Center ropes course — for Part 2 of the orientation. By then, each will have a month under their belt as an Exonian.