Nahla Owens

Year of Graduation: 
Nahla Owens

“It was a lot of hard work, but [what] made it worth it was the people who ... said, 'Wow, that really had a profound impact on me.'”

Even empty, an energy exists inside Assembly Hall. Decades of inspiring words from featured speakers line the walls like coats of paint, the buzz of opening days is woven into the seatback fabric, and cheers from E/A pep rallies past linger in the rafters. In the days before the start of her final semester at Exeter, Nahla Owens ’21 sits in the middle of the yawning space, its aura amplified by the stillness, reflecting on four remarkable years. 

Looking around the auditorium, the memories come quickly. “I was sitting over there for my first ever UnSilenced,” she says, pointing to a row of seats near the stage. The traditional kickoff to the Academy’s annual celebration of the life of Martin Luther King Jr., UnSilenced features a variety of student performances with a social justice theme. “I remember feeling the passion and the stage presence of every single performer and how that was reciprocated by the audience.”

Walking back to McConnell Hall that night, Owens knew she wanted to be more than a spectator next time. “It was just an amazing feeling to be there. And it made me realize, ‘Oh my goodness, this is something I have to be a part of.’”

This revelatory moment almost never happened.

Three days before the start of Owens’ prep year, Hurricane Harvey spun through the Gulf of Mexico, making landfall across Texas and Louisiana and causing extensive flooding in her hometown of Houston. Her family’s home was destroyed. She lost nearly everything. 

Despite the devastation, Owens’ parents were determined to see their daughter’s dream realized. The family drove to New Hampshire, arriving just before the start of fall term, the entirety of Owens’ possessions fitting into a single backpack. The ordeal shaped her perspective as a new student. 

“I think stepping on campus, the thought was ‘This is my home now, and I have to make it worth it,’” she says. “I really just wanted to take advantage of everything that I could here.”

A snapshot of the senior’s superlatives shows she’s done just that. Developing a passion for social activism, Owens took on leadership roles in the Afro-Latinx Society, Model UN Club, Democratic Club and as a research fellow for the ACLU. She fulfilled her goal from prep year, producing and co-hosting the two most recent installments of UnSilenced — perhaps inspiring the next wave of students to get involved. 

“It was a lot of hard work, but the thing that made it all worth it was the people who came up to me and said, ‘Wow, that really had a profound impact on me.’”

Owens hopes to continue her work as an activist and leader in college and plans to pursue a degree in law. She cites an assembly address from 2019 Bragdon Fellow and civil justice lawyer Bryan Stevenson as one of the most influential moments of her time at Exeter. 

“As he was walking across that stage, he stopped very briefly to wave to me, and I turned around and audibly screamed. Thinking back on it, very embarrassing,” she recalls smiling. “After my experience in the hurricane, I really connect with Stevenson’s philosophy of ‘If I can do something good for someone in the world, why would I not do it?’”

By the time Assembly Hall returns to full-throat, Owens will be on to college, but her contributions to that space and the Academy will live on. Despite her accomplishments, Owens remains humble, remembering the sacrifices her parents made as they rebuilt their lives and home from afar. 

“I have so much gratitude for the grit and resilience that they showed and how generous they were letting me experience Exeter after going through something that was very difficult for them,” she says. “I’m really grateful.”

—Adam Loyd

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the spring 2021 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.