As prep school students are preparing to start their Fall semester, I looked back at my days at Berkshire and wanted to share a few things that I learned as an international student. To give you some context, I went to a local school in Hong Kong and was a socially and culturally awkward kid (my friends and teachers would testify to that). I did some things right and some things wrong, and although it’s hard to define and measure what “success” means for a high school life, the following pointers can help you make the best use of your time and resources available.
1. Plan Ahead
In his bestseller “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, Steven Covey urges his readers to be proactive and begin with the end in mind. I can’t stress how important this is to life and especially to high school life in the States. We - international students – are supported by the sponsorship of our loving parents and blessed with the rare opportunity to study in and enjoy the American boarding school system. It is only natural that we want to get the most out of our experience. But “to what end?” one might ask. Some consider success to be admission to a prestigious college while others may seek to have the most fun. Knowing your end goal helps you prioritize your life and strategize. There will be a myriad of academic, athletic, and extracurricular pursuits available screaming for your attention and vying for your time. Setting your end goal can give you the courage to say “No” to the activities that don’t contribute much to your goal while helping you focus on the things that really matter to you. Survey all the opportunities, courses, and activities available and chart your course.
When I was a Freshman, I realized that if I worked really hard, it was entirely possible for me to get into a prestigious university, even an Ivy League. That opportunity and hope – which was previously not available to me – motivated me to figure out what I had to do to get there. I met with the college counselor in my second or third semester and figured out what courses or grades I needed in order to achieve my goal. Throughout my time, I ensured that I took the right AP classes and got the grades I needed.
Now, having said that, I wish I had included health and fun in my goal - which leads me to my second point:
2. Take care of yourself
Taking good care of yourself is a key part of growing up. I guessed since I grew up in a very comfortable, spoiled, and pampering environment, this didn’t come easily to me (my wife would argue that this is still hard for me). I got sick very often. I didn’t know how to cook. I didn’t know how to protect myself physically and emotionally. Looking back, had I taken good care of my health – physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual - I would have had more fun and achieved more in high school. In terms of physical fitness, most boarding schools have mandatory after-school athletic programs. I was never an athlete so being placed in a soccer team required some tough adjustments. I also learned to keep warm in the freezing temperatures of the Berkshire mountains. So health and safety is a big part of success which also means we international students should do everything we can to stay away from smoking and taking substances. Emotional health is just as important – how you manage stress and your relationships with family and friends affect how happy you are in school. I didn’t know it then but excessive stress weakened my immune system and damaged my relationships with people around me. For Christians and students from Christian families, I strongly encourage you to keep up your spiritual health by being disciplined in daily devotions, prayer, and church life.
3. Stretch yourself
Over the years I’ve observed a “like attracts like” phenomenon in the high school social scene, especially among international students. We all feel safe and familiar when we hang out with someone from our ethnic background having the same language and cultural values as we do. It’s important to have that community when you feel so alone and homesick. Nevertheless, it’s crucial to stretch your comfort zone and be intentional about making friends with people from all over the world. You’ll learn to empathize with others and see things from their perspectives. One of my close friends was an American from Oklahoma and another was from Jamaica. I learned a lot from them and cherished our friendship very much. Don’t worry too much about how people perceive you or how immature you feel. It’s high school – people wouldn’t remember how immature you were then, but they’ll remember that you’re a kind, genuine buddy (or not).
Stretch yourself also intellectually. Take classes that you think are “useless”, and I guarantee you that what you learn from those “useless” classes might in fact turn out to be more “useful” than you think. I took astronomy and exceled in it. It was my passion, and of all my college essays, the one that I wrote about astronomy was the one that got me into Cornell. Not only that, what I learned about star lifecycles later helped me understand the platform business when I led a medium-sized e-Commerce firm in China. Take interesting courses that’ll stretch and challenge your intellect. This will build your analytical and critical thinking skills. High school and college are the best time to do it, and I’m sure you won’t regret it.
In summary, prep school life is a blessing that I strongly encourage you to take full advantage of by planning ahead, staying healthy, and stretching yourself. Don’t worry and have fun!
I am in the U.K. this week visiting and contacting leading boarding schools - or public schools as they are called here.
My outreach has included Wycombe Abbey School, the King's School Canterbury and Westminster School in London.
See the photos attached of my visit to Westminster School, some with Westminster Abbey in focus, as the school and Abbey are inextricably linked. It's a half term holiday so no students were around unfortunately.
In its typical British less is more style, there is no sign to enter Westminster School. The school's quad seen in the photo is known as Dean's Yard. One of England's first founded schools, Westminster has educated a diverse group of students from Sir Christopher Wren to A.A. Milne, as well as seven Prime Ministers. Fun fact: Milne, the Winnie the Pooh creator, left his estate to Westminster!
I am pleased to be overseeing a student application to these fine schools.
That is a driving force of the MasterCard Foundation’s philosophy. I was fortunate to have dinner this week with Robin McLay, the former Director of Research, Strategy and Learning for the MasterCard Foundation, based in Toronto.
Robin has returned to Vancouver Island after a glittering career, which also included being a Fulbright Scholar at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and being the first Executive Director of McGill University’s Institute for the Study of International Development. His university studies were at McGill, the LSE and Harvard.
In their words, the MasterCard Foundation seeks “a world where everyone has the opportunity to learn and prosper.” One of their programs provides large grants annually to deserving and talented students from around the world - with a focus on Africa - to enable them to study at leading North American universities. Robin’s role was to advance thought leadership within the fields of higher education, financial inclusion and employment programs and to ensure that the Foundation’s programs and initiatives were informed by good evidence.
I was introduced to Robin by my good friend Bill Myles - another McGill graduate - who is Robin’s brother-in-law. We were able to toast Bill’s fine career in Victoria public schools, with just 30 days to go before his retirement.
We discussed education in general and collaborative approaches to help kids on a global level. Robin continues to support many causes through his volunteerism and board appointments with the Fulbright Foundation, The Walrus Foundation, and the Harvard School of Public health, to name a few. He is now working with the BC Government where he is leading their efforts to advance social innovation. We are going to continue our dialog.
J&A endeavors to help its student clients reach their potential. We go far, and go together with students and parents to make dreams happen!