Fourteen-year-old Jacky Liang isn’t your average student. The articulate and well-mannered Beijinger seems more like a college student rather than a middle schooler. But given the fact that Liang began boarding at only 18 months of age, his calm demeanor and grown-up composure makes sense.
His older brother, now 18, also went to boarding school in Beijing and currently attends university in Colorado. The younger Liang shares similar aspirations to go abroad and got his first taste of the West in 2011, when he got to study in Los Angeles for ten months with his old boarding school.
Liang is currently in Grade 9 at newly-opened Keystone Academy, joining the ranks of the first group of students to take part in the school’s boarding and residential program. We sit down with Liang and his mom, Maggie Ma, to learn more about life as a boarding student.
How did your parents share the news with you about going to Keystone?
I actually found out about Keystone through beijingkids! I was reading an issue last year and Keystone had a 3D image on the back cover. It said, “A new world school and a new model of education in China.” I did research and was actually the one who presented the idea of going to Keystone to my parents. My mom said, “You’re already 14 years old and you should have the ability to judge and decide for your own life.” So they said, “Off you go!”
How do you liking boarding school life?
I enjoy boarding school. I haven’t considered what it would be like to go to a day school because I’m totally used to this lifestyle. When I studied abroad with my former boarding school, we didn’t do a home stay; the school rented apartments for us.
But at Keystone, we’re really like a family. My advisor, Mrs. Juli James, told me on the first day, “I am your Keystone mom.” The food is pretty nice. We have both western and Chinese cuisine and one of the special things we’ve started is community dinner. The teachers, their children, and all the residents come down to the first floor, set the table, and have dinner together every few weeks.
What’s your roommate like?
My roommate really likes computer science and is very technical. He’s also really into robotics. Though my brother and I had rooms beside each other at home, we never shared a room. You learn a lot from sharing a room with someone because we all have different potential and things we’re good at.
What’s a typical day like for you?
I usually get up around 7am and go downstairs for breakfast, followed by a morning meeting at 8am, which is when the middle school gathers for announcements. Every day, one teacher hosts the meeting. We have three periods between morning meeting and [snack]break. Afterwards we have another two classes and take lunch from 12.15pm to 1pm. After afternoon classes, the day ends officially at about 3.15pm for day students.
For boarders, we stay in the school until lights out, which is at 10.15pm for Grade 9 students and 10pm for Grade 6, 7, and 8. During the week, we have KAP (Keystone Activities Program) which can include anything from sports, art, and social skills to leadership and community service. I do community service and table tennis Monday and Friday. Next semester, I plan to join MUN [Model United Nations].
On Wednesdays we’re on a slightly different schedule because we go to our advisory group. This year, our advisory group is made of three people including me. We sit together in Mrs. James’ office and talk about problems, good news, or bad news. On Wednesdays, our day ends at 2.40pm and if you have KAP, you go, but if you don’t there’s a program called Wednesday Night Out. You can get out of school from 2.40pm until 7pm if your parents are come to school and take you out for dinner or shopping.
What are some of the advantages of attending boarding school?
Learning time management, especially when you get to middle or high school. You need to seize the day because there will not be a teacher holding your hand. You need a watch [motions to wrist]and you need to watch your time and manage it carefully. You cannot spend study hours playing games and start your work at midnight. Another advantage is life skills, like doing laundry. If I don’t go home for the weekend, I need to do my own laundry.
What are some of the disadvantages?
Getting homesick is the biggest disadvantage. I’ve seen a lot of kids who struggle at boarding school because they miss their mom and dad. When I was in Los Angeles, I used Skype to talk with my family every week. Until now, not one student on my floor has been homesick. I find it really amazing. We’re all big boys now. One thing I’ve heard from some parents is that they’re afraid to send their kid to boarding school because they worry about growing apart. I know a few examples of students coming to boarding school who say their relationship with family has changed, but it hasn’t happened to me.
How does being away from home affect you on a daily
It’s made me more independent, especially when it comes to time management and social relationships. If you’re having trouble with a friend, the best choice isn’t to pick up the phone and call your parents because they can’t drive to school and solve your problem; you need to figure it out on your own. Independence is what has shaped me today. My relationship with my family is still really good and we’re still close. I go home every two weeks and we talk to each other once or twice during the week.
What is your relationship with your dorm parents like?
Dorm parents are in charge of making sure your relationship with all the dorm members are alright, that you’re involved in dorm activities, that you go to bed on time – that you’re doing the right things at the right time, basically. But if they catch you playing games, you’re probably in trouble. I’m on really good terms with my two dorm parents, Mr. Yang and Mr. Weight. Every day, they check our room at 7pm and see if the floor is clean, if you made your bed, and if your desk is tidy. My room was selected as one of the best rooms on the floor; in fact, the admissions team shows my room on tours.
What do you do for fun after class?
We watch movies in the Keystone Cinema on Fridays and weekends. Teachers plan different trips for us; recently we went to The Great Wall. On Saturdays, a bunch of [us]go to Roundabout and volunteer. We also go on shopping trips to Euro Plaza and Pinnacle Plaza and to parks like the Summer Palace or Beihai Park. We have activities every weekend if you don’t go home.
What’s it like when you visit home?
I go home every two weeks and my family lives about 25 minutes away. It doesn’t make a big difference to me because being away is normal already. What I’ve found is that even students who are new to boarding begin to call their parents and say they don’t want to go home for the weekend. They want to stay with the school and do activities.
How is boarding school preparing you for the future?
I would definitely like to attend university in the States, the UK, or Australia. I might study cultural anthropology or politics or marketing. When you go to university abroad, you’re far from home. If you stay at a boarding school, you have the experience of not being with your parents. They can’t help you, so you need to be the master of your fate. You need to control your time, finances, relationships, and academics. Boarding school really prepares you to be a college student.
What advice would you give other teens who might attend a boarding school?
Don’t be too wild or out-of-control. Sometimes new students experience suddenly having freedom and they have no idea how to use their time and just go crazy gaming until 2am. You can choose to sleep at that time and perhaps no one will find out, but in the morning you’ll be hurting. I would encourage other boys to join a boarding school because you’ll really know how it feels to be yourself without a parent’s guidance. I can choose not to eat dinner tonight if I’m not hungry, I can come home for lunch, grab something and take a shower if I want, and you can reach home really quickly. It’s really convenient.
Maggie, what made you decide to send Jacky to boarding school?
The reason I sent both my sons to boarding school is for them to study abroad in the future. A boarding environment is good for learning life skills and preparing for life at university.
What are some of the unique aspects of Keystone compared to other boarding schools in China?
Jacky’s last school was more focused on Chinese educational philosophies and I was looking for a more western school with elements of Chinese culture and philosophy. Based on my research, I believe Keystone was the best choice in Beijing and in China.
How has the adjustment been to not having your son in the house?
Because Jacky’s older brother also attended boarding school from a young age, I was already very used to this type of lifestyle. Jacky began at boarding kindergarten when he was very young and now I’m confident that he can deal with all kinds of situations. I’ve always been confident in his teachers too. Though I spend a lot of my time studying or doing business, there are always conversations between mother and son. I have heard some parents mention “empty nest syndrome,” but I haven’t experienced it.
How does the family spend time together when Jacky is home?
We talk for hours about what’s happening at school, politics, the economy, and global events. We go out to meet with friends, have family gatherings, or go out for dinner. Also, Jacky has a very interesting hobby of going to the airport and taking photos of airplanes landing and taking off.
How frequently and in what form does the school report on your son’s progress?
Progress report emails come about every two months from Jacky’s advisor and show his progress in academic, social, and residential life. If there’s a problem, I can communicate with his advisor.
Can you offer advice to parents who are new to boarding school life?
I’m part of Keystone’s parent WeChat group and I notice that other parents worry way too much. Parents should let their child figure things out on their own so they can learn to become more independent. Parents send their children to boarding school to build character and prepare for university life. If they over-focus on their child, they will not grow up. My advice is to think about the big picture and not worry about the small things, such as when they’re eating dinner or how much they’re using the phone.
Liang’s advisor and Keystone’s Director of Residential Life and Global Initiatives Juli James also takes the time to answer some of our questions about boarding school life.
What is the student relationships like with advisors and dorm parents?
Students at boarding schools tend to develop deeper relationships with their teachers and dorm parents than in a day school setting because you eat, work, and play together. Teachers assume the role of parent, confidante, and supporter. Going out to dinner with a teacher, or enjoying snacks and a movie in your dorm parent’s home allows both student and teacher to see each other in a different, more comfortable light.
Having been an advisor and dorm parent at a US boarding school for 24 years, I consider some of my closest friends today the dorm residents and advisees of years past. It’s hard to adequately explain the bonds that are forged in this environment. I attend my former students’ weddings and celebrate the arrival of their children. These students are like our own children.
Are some children better-suited to attend boarding school than others?
Absolutely. Some students need more guidance and supervision in basic day-to-day living, like with laundry and homework. They must understand and follow detailed dormitory procedures and schedules. Some Grade 7 students are well-suited for boarding and some Grade 9 students are not.
Students who do well in a boarding setting are organized, independent, and self-reliant. We want our students to stay here on weekends to partake in leadership, service, and social events, so kids who feel they must go home every weekend might not be the best fit for boarding.
What advice can you offer to families that are considering sending their children to boarding school?
Parents should assess their child’s readiness and suitability for boarding. Is he or she able to manage their own daily schedules and chores? Are they willing to immerse themselves in the life of the community? Can they manage their studies without constant prodding? If a child can live independently away from home, he or she would no doubt grow and blossom in a boarding environment.
When looking at a boarding school, one should assess the warmth and friendliness of the dormitory staff and study the residential life curriculum. Ask yourself, does it foster independence and relationships, or is it simply supervision?
10 Anfu Jie, Houshayu, Shunyi District (8049 6088, email@example.com) www.keystoneacademy.cn 顺义区后沙峪镇安富街10号
This article originally appeared on p32-35 in the December 2014 issue of beijingkids. To view it online for free, click here. To find out how you can obtain your own copy, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos: Serena Xu