Audrey Vanderslice

Year of Graduation: 
Audrey Vanderslice

"Exeter will always live within us."

As class of 2020 president, Audrey Vanderslice ’20 knew she’d be addressing  her peers at their June commencement. What neither she nor anyone else anticipated was that she’d be orating from her grandparents’ living room on Cape Cod, backlit by her dad’s bike light, her phone propped on a ladder and a Lion flag pinned to the wall. Nor did she anticipate speaking in the context of what she describes as “a world on fire: a world lit by not only this global pandemic, but racial injustice, widening socioeconomic disparities, a health-care system pushed to the brink, climate change, and countless other domestic and international dilemmas.”

It’s a dystopian picture, but Vanderslice defies despair. She focuses not on the negative, nor on her own accomplishments, but on collective successes. “I’ve never been prouder to be a member of Exeter’s class of 2020 than this spring,” she said in her commencement address. “Seeing everything my classmates accomplished [after being sent home] … was the perfect culmination of everything I’ve always loved and admired about this uniquely talented, brilliant and compassionate group.” She praises those classmates staffing food pantries, making masks and protesting the deaths of Black people at the hands of police. She extols classmates’ Instagram-documented, quarantine-era projects in painting, writing and cuisine, which, she says, “bring so much light to students’ days and ensure we stay connected from afar.” For her part, Vanderslice was a voting board member of the Exeter Relief Fund, which as of July 1 had distributed almost $7,500 to PEA students and families experiencing COVID-19-related financial struggles.

Vanderslice is impressed but unsurprised by her peers’ engagement. Exeter is “an academic and social community unlike any other,” she says, built on “discourse, relentless rigor, selfless collaboration and profound affection.” PEA graduates are equipped “not simply to defend ourselves against whatever life throws our way, but to positively change the new communities of which we will now become a part.”

Exeter is “an academic and social community unlike any other,” built on “discourse, relentless rigor, selfless collaboration and profound affection.”

Challenge, Vanderslice says, is what Exonians thrive on. She vividly recalls writing a 35-page history paper on Uighur internment camps in China, only to have thousands of government documents leaked two days before it was due. Rewriting her essay to incorporate this information felt impossible, yet she did it. She calls it one of the most daunting and rewarding undertakings of her life.

This combination of challenge and fulfillment characterizes Vanderslice’s four years on campus, where her passions included Concert Choir, Student Council and Mock Trial, for which she won “Outstanding Attorney” at the state competition. A lifelong language aficionado, she spent semesters in Beijing and Paris before beginning high school. “The linguistic skills I acquired from my studies [abroad] had a profound impact on my time at Exeter and will undoubtedly continue to influence my academic and professional path,” she says. “I’m fluent in French, and during my time in China, I became fluent in Mandarin and acquired my greatest pride and joy: a native Beijing accent.” Last summer, she attended an Arabic-language State Department program in Morocco, where she played piano for strangers at a local restaurant. “It turns out they enjoy belting out Billy Joel’s lyrics as much as Americans do,” she says with a laugh.

What lesson will the world traveler take with her to Harvard next fall? “I used to think that being an Exonian was about being physically present at Exeter,” she says. “After all, most of our memories at PEA consist of going to dinner at Elm on Sunday nights and shouting hello to friends across the quad. … But now that we’ve experienced our final term off-campus and seen what we can do together from afar, I realize being an Exonian has nothing to do with where we happen to be residing at the time — it’s who we are, the values we cherish, the choices we make. … Exeter will always live within us.”

— Juliet Eastland ’86