21st-century boarding: a key educational experience

Boarding is often a necessary step for students to attend a school that offers a specialist education, particularly at international schools where students come from across the globe. But, shouldn’t boarding be about so much more than just somewhere for a student to lay their head? How can it be an exciting opportunity where students can explore new cultures? Could the prospect of living with other international students, learning new customs and traditions, become the element that removes doubt and makes boarding attractive to those seeking new experiences? 

By their very nature, independent schools seek to highlight the elements that make them unique. When choosing a school to attend, parents and students may be motivated by any number of factors: grade statistics, links with certain universities, heritage. However, sometimes the school or college that offers what they are looking for may not be a convenient commute from home. Enter the boarding school, and all the uncertainty it can present for those used to having their children under the family roof. 

Caution with the unknown is healthy and understandable, but how do we turn that unknown element into the factor that draws individuals to an international boarding college? 

In my opinion, the answer is to make boarding a fundamental and unique element of the educational experience offered. This is the 21st century, and while technology can make the world feel like a smaller place, providing opportunities to let young people truly immerse themselves in cultural diversity is one of the most beneficial experiences we can provide. 

It’s a chance to grow by learning from the stories, customs and traditions of others. Young people can immerse themselves in an environment that will take their learning beyond the classroom and help them develop an international outlook. Academic discussion can progress beyond lesson time, whether that be the continuation of debate around international politics, or learning how the same history is taught from different perspectives around the world. Such conversations are usually associated with students at university level. It is this sentiment which formed the basis of Kurt Hahn’s vision when he founded the UWC movement with Atlantic College in 1962 – to bring students from around the world to live, serve and learn together.  

Regardless of whether a residential school or college has an international student base, the need to create a supportive collegiate environment – a ‘home from home’, so to speak – is crucial to ensuring students feel comfortable and settled in a new environment. Establishing something as simple as a regular telephone routine with students’ families back home can be really beneficial, especially in the day and age of social media and constant connectivity where ‘real’ conversation can be taken for granted. 

Taking steps to ensure residential students have access to mental health support services is also vitally important. Like many residential schools, at UWC Atlantic College we have permanent on-campus psychologists and counsellors and ensure pupils have access to support whenever needed. This is designed to support students in a holistic manner and allow us to intercept challenges before they might become problems. We are creating an environment where there is not a stigma attached to talking about feelings with tutors and peers; it is the norm. 

When bringing together students for the first time, it’s important to present bonding opportunities that help break down boundaries early. This is especially true in our case where, thanks to bursary programmes, our cohorts can mix students from very different socio-economic, geographic, and cultural backgrounds, for the benefit of all. From their first day at UWC Atlantic College, students engage in interactive activities with their new colleagues to help lay the foundations of strong working relationships. 

Peter Howe, Principal of UWC Atlantic College

The first week is dedicated to establishing relationships of trust with no academic classes, including a welcome camp where students participate together in team-building activities. First-year students are supported by peer listeners – a group of second-year students nominated by their peers and trained by the college psychologist – who serve as the first level of support in our wellbeing framework. Students also elect their colleagues for committee positions such as house, environmental, and social representative. These processes and opportunities instil a sense of authentic responsibility and trust in our students and work to nurture their initiative and leadership skills. 

Students then settle into boarding houses with peers from across the world in rooms of four which deliberately mix language, cultural and religious groups. Even at this early stage, they begin to establish the mind-set that challenges are opportunities, for example where different native tongues are not barriers but opportunities to learn new languages. Moving to a new country and calling a residential school home brings challenges, yes, but also the opportunity to acquire knowledge, deepen cultural understanding and develop a resilience that will help prepare them for challenges to come in later life. 

Fundamentally, one of the best steps residential schools can take is at the earliest stage, before boarders pack their bags. 

It’s not a simple question of whether a student will adapt to boarding, but a question of how the experience will aid their personal growth. For those students, boarding in the 21st century should not be viewed as a means to an end. Rather, it is an opportunity like no other – it can be a central pillar in building a rich and diverse educational experience that continues after the school bell sounds – and one that could help education become a force for cultural understanding, acceptance and gaining the skills to affect positive change in the world they will go on to shape. 

For more information on the United World College movement, including UWC Atlantic College visit: www.uwc.org

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