The first thing people notice when stepping onto the summer campus of Phillips Exeter Academy is the immensely diverse community. With 750 students from 39 states and 51 countries, everyone at Exeter has a different cultural story or background. However, away from the comfortable confines of home, the unfamiliarity of the new environment results in a need for familiar faces or backgrounds. In more conservative and traditional communities, these differences are not as celebrated or acknowledged. Fortunately, Exeter creates a platform for these minorities to shine, specifically through the affinity groups.
“I was quite surprised when I found out Exeter had affinity groups,” said Catherine Sarkis, an upper school student. “Exeter has an extremely rich history, dating back to 1781. I had assumed they would still have some conservative values, but these affinity groups prove me wrong.”
Defined as a group of students and faculty related by a common interest or background, these affinity groups create an inclusive atmosphere where everyone feels valued. Fostering a strong sense of support, they can also spread cultural awareness. With communities ranging from the Afro-Latino Society to the Gay Straight Alliance , the weekly meetings help students feel more comfortable with who they are and where they are in this foreign summer course.
In the church basement, Muslim prayers occur at 1 p.m., the Native American students meet every Wednesday at 7 p.m., the Afro-Latino Society convenes every Thursday at 7 p.m. and the Gay Straight Alliance congregates every Monday at 7 p.m.. Supervised by members of the faculty who also identify with the aforementioned groups, the students are free to meet new people, socialize and discuss or share stories related to their common interests.
Creating an opportunity to discuss various issues specific to their group, the affinity groups help create an important support system and safety net. Especially to students abroad who have never participated or heard of these groups, the gathering of each community helps foster a sense of belonging and identity, perhaps even for students whose cultural and religious values contradict their opinions.
Moreover, affinity groups can also help all students bond over shared experiences. The majority of the Gay Straight group is composed of access students, creating an opportunity for the upper school students to give them advice.
“Generally, upper school students are further along the process of knowing who they are,” said Alex Abrahams, an upper school student. “The meetings allow me to show [access students] that things will get better, no matter what compromising situation they are in currently.”
For Alex personally, the affinity group inspires her, knowing that she can give guidance and help to someone who is questioning their identity.
“As I know what it’s like to be an impeded queer person, I take every chance I get to help younger students going through the same thing,” said Alex. “It’s somewhat reassuring for me as well, since I feel like I’ve gone full circle!”
Additionally, it allows her to meet new groups of queer people and bond through shared experiences and stories. Only familiar with local groups, Alex had never talked to a queer person outside of her hometown.
“It’s interesting to meet other people from around the world,” said Alex. “I’ve met people who have lived in situations where it’s unimaginably hard to be who they are, be it because of their family’s culture or religion.”
Indeed, upon attending a Gay Straight meeting, many students opened up about how difficult it was to go against their cultural or religious values, especially when families are not as accepting as others. The difference in culture was extremely evident after a few minutes of discussion. Students had their individual stories to tell.
Planning to invite a queer member of the clergy to one of their meetings, the Gay Straight group hopes to focus and help students who are personally debating between home values and identity, hoping they can learn from past experience on the debate about religion and sexuality.
Peering around the room, Alex sat back comfortably on her seat. With a hopeful glint in her eyes and a small smile, Alex truly felt at ease with the familiar stories the people in the room recounted.