For this world traveler, Williams School was just the right size

Williams School senior Olivia Fetter poses for a photo on campus Friday, May 18, 2018. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Williams School senior Olivia Fetter poses for a photo on campus Friday, May 18, 2018. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Olivia Fetter has been traveling since before she can remember.

No, really: The first time the Williams School senior stepped foot on a plane, she was 6 months old.

Since then, she has been to Spain, Ireland and Italy, where she saw architecture unlike anything in the United States. Her parents traveled around a lot and for a couple of years, she lived in Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands — a move she dreaded when it came but grew to appreciate.

This week she’s in Costa Rica, combining her love of photography and adventure to document life in the rainforest-laden country of 5 million. The trip is part of her senior project, a last step to take before she walks across the stage June 6.

“Traveling is really important to me,” the Chester native said last week, calling it “a good way to understand the world.”

“I think people would be more open-minded if they did more traveling,” she said.

But though her worldview is large, Fetter was attracted to Williams because it’s small.

A part-time barista and longtime dancer, she went through public school in Chester and attended Cayman International High School during her stint in the Caribbean. Neither was large as far as public schools go but neither approached academics the way Williams does, either.

When old friend Lili Kleinberg visited Fetter in Grand Cayman during her freshman year, she brought word of Williams: the small student body, the attentive staff, the focus on real-world skills.

Fetter was sold. Three years ago, she, her mother and her brother rejoined her father in Chester in part so Fetter could attend the New London school, which has about 240 students.

As she stares down graduation, Fetter is sure she made the right decision. When she got to Williams, she was shy and unsure of herself. A childhood on-stage incident loomed large, preventing her from getting back in front of a crowd.

Now Fetter uses two hands to tick off her performances, whether it was dancing at Williams or playing the ukulele at an open mic night. That’s largely because she took a dance class her sophomore year without realizing it required participation in Compchorea, an annual concert featuring work by students.

“I realized that first year that it wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be,” Fetter said.

On top of tackling her stage fright, Fetter has grown into a person other students feel comfortable confiding in, a quiet leader who’d rather not be front and center.

Speaking by phone Monday, English teacher Thomas Kelly, who is also dean of faculty, called Fetter “a fantastic kid.”

A child of older parents, Fetter grasped difficult subjects in a mature manner, Kelly said.

Once, when Kelly gave Fetter a C+ on a first draft of an essay, she came up and thanked him for pushing her to do her best.

“That never happens,” Kelly said. “I can’t say anything but positive things about her.”

Fetter said Kelly was among the most impactful teachers she had at Williams. He made her feel better on even her worst days, she said, and she came out of each of his classes “feeling like I knew more about the world.”

But Fetter also grew close to art teacher Greg Bowerman through her work with Legenda, the school’s yearbook. It’s an extracurricular activity the co-editor found appealing because it combines photography and organizational skills.

When Fetter was still a new student in 10th grade, Bowerman recalled, as she was signing in for an after-school program one day, she caught him peering over her shoulder. "She covered her name with her arm and slyly peered up at me and said, 'You don't know my name, do you?'" he said.

From that moment on, every time he saw her, he'd lower his voice and call out her name — her whole name, Olivia Fetter.

When he brought it up recently, Fetter said she didn't remember the incident, "but that sounds like my 10th grade self," she told him.

"She is always so humble, composed, and a fierce multi-tasker. She always has many balls in the air and gives the appearance of not having a care in the world," Bowerman said. "These characteristics are what make Olivia Fetter so special."

“It’s different when you’re here,” Fetter said of the Williams School. “It fosters more of a foundation of relationships you can go back to. I have a feeling I’ll be talking to teachers here who have impacted my life for years to come.”

As with Williams, it was childhood friend Kleinberg who turned Fetter on to the University of California, Santa Barbara — her next step. Fetter visited California because Kleinberg has family there. She quickly fell for the more relaxed way of life — it reminded her of her time in Grand Cayman.

Fetter isn’t sure what she’ll pursue, yet. She always has been interested in psychology. Her mother has degrees in psychology and law and has worked inside prisons. And Fetter has read books on how the brain works just for fun — “it’s super interesting to me,” she said.

But she expects to take dance and film classes, too, and may even dive into criminology.

“There are so many things I could do,” she said. “I’m trying not to worry about it.”

Asked whether she’s concerned about class size at Santa Barbara, Fetter said she’s no longer seeking out small places.

“I was thinking initially that I wanted something small still,” Fetter said. “But I realized as time went on that I appreciate Williams but I don’t want to just do that my whole life."

“I want to experience something else,” she continued. “I know I’ll be fine.”

l.boyle@theday.com

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