As an only child born and raised in Shanghai, Elaine Wang was used to being the centre of attention in her family. But four years ago, in an effort to make their daughter more independent, her parents decided to send the 14-year-old more than 11,000 kilometres away to a boarding school in Toronto, to prepare her for university life.
Though she travels back to China every chance she gets, and her parents come out once a year, Ms. Wang was really on her own for the first time as she tried to get her head around a new country, new city and new surroundings.
"When I came to boarding school I started to realize, 'Oh my God, my mom actually takes care of so much,'" she says. "Now I'm on my own. I have to pay attention not just to my physical health but also mental health."
Her school, Havergal College, is an all-girls boarding and day school of 910 students ranging from junior kindergarten to Grade 12, of which just 50 are boarders (the boarding option exists only for Grades 9-12).
The school aims to instill life skills in its boarders in Grade 9, such as taking public transit, or managing their schedules, and then lets them build on that during the rest of their tenure at Havergal.
"We do cooking lessons with them, we do laundry tutorials and in Grade 9 sometimes we do how to make your own bed because some kids don't come with those skills," says Natalia Stewart, the head of boarding at Havergal.
For 17-year-old Ms. Wang, now in Grade 12 with plans to study medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton where her father received an MBA, the experience at Havergal goes far beyond the classroom and life skills. It has also enabled her to find a voice that she didn't know she possessed.
"I'm an introvert and before I came here I always thought that only the extroverts can be the leaders, and now I see a lot of potential in myself and the value of being a silent leader," she says, adding she now helps some of the younger girls at the school find their bearings and do their own laundry.
Having grown up as an only child, Ms. Wang has also benefited from living among her peers and learning to deal with any disagreements that inevitably come along. Though she now has her own room, the past two years she was in a double room with a roommate.
"Boarding is a community so I'm living with these people every day and sometimes you have to talk to solve conflicts. By having these open conversations I learned a lot about how to deal with people and how to manage relationships," she says.
Living with a group of strangers also has its cultural benefits, particularly as moving on to university and beyond will bring encounters with people of many nationalities and backgrounds.
At Ridley College, a private boarding and day school in St. Catharines, Ont., that is certainly one of the aims for its boarding community, which numbers 363 students out of 667, from junior kindergarten to Grade 12, with boarding existing only in the last four grades.
"When they arrive, they don't know who their roommate is," says Edward Kidd, headmaster of Ridley. "It could be someone from Germany, it could be someone from Brampton. They learn how to get along and it's amazing. Those are huge life skills and one of the reasons I think boarding schools still exist."
Ridley's vision for its students is to inspire flourishing lives, which it does through a comprehensive program of academics and activities for both the boarders and day students, who arrive at 7 a.m. and go back to their parents' houses at 10 p.m. In between there are mandatory after-school activities at 4:30 p.m. daily, from sports to film and theatre clubs, followed by dinner, possible guest speakers and two to three hours of study before bed.
In addition, leadership roles in each boarding house designate people for chores such as taking out the garbage or doing the laundry.
"We do have staff who help to maintain the house and clean it up, but the boarders are required to clean up their room and do all that stuff," Mr. Kidd says. "So there's definitely that aspect of just learning how to live in a community, learning how to be independent, how to take care of themselves."
Having the students for all that extra time compared to a day school definitely makes a difference in the range of activities and skill-building sessions that can be offered, the school says.
At Shawnigan Lake School, a private boarding and day school of about 500 students in British Columbia, each school year starts with a presentation from a former RCMP officer who specialized in cyber security telling students about the dangers that lurk online for unsuspecting children.
In addition, students take part in things such as debates and community service. The school offers academic stretching courses in 16 subjects through AP Capstone, which involves writing research papers to achieve a diploma that should help students prepare for university and college.
"There isn't a parent in the world who is not trying to let their kids learn how to be independent but without just cutting them loose. So what boarding schools do now is they offer this controlled independence, as I call it," says David Robertson, headmaster at Shawnigan Lake.
Shawnigan Lake's full curriculum makes the transition to university life a little easier, according to Mr. Robertson, based on the interactions he has with former students.
"They're not fazed by the sudden excess of freedom that's forced upon them [in postsecondary education]. They're used to organizing their lives, sitting down between seven and 10 at night to do their prep, their homework and so on."
For Ms. Wang, the boarding community has given her some brand-new perspective on life.
"When I first started boarding I was looking for this sense of belonging," she says. "Before, I always thought of home as that place in Shanghai and it wasn't until I came to Havergal that I found out that home is not a place, it's a feeling, and I really like the feeling that's created here."