As head prefect at Brentwood College School, Oliver Wilson knows more than most about the advantages he has at his fingertips at the predominantly boarding school in Mill Bay, B.C., northwest of Victoria on Vancouver Island.
With about 40 nationalities present among the student body of 525, cultural diversity is one of them. However, that can also bring challenges.
"Having friends from Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and all over Russia, places like that, telling that to my other friends from my old school, they're like, 'How does that work? How do you know these people?'," the senior student leader says.
After explaining the practicalities of language barriers – there is no English-as-a-second-language course at Brentwood, meaning that all the students there have the required proficiency in English to communicate freely with each other – he says the school deliberately fosters interaction between the students.
For instance, it puts on activities that Mr. Wilson describes as "like speed dating," where students meet another 10 students in a rapid-fire manner over the course of a few minutes.
It's all part of carefully manicured experience through a deliberate strategy.
Clayton Johnston, Brentwood's director of admissions, says that when the financial downturn hit in 2008, many schools, particularly boarding schools, became more monocultural as they targeted students from one country or another.
Drawing on the belief that Brentwood wants everyone to have a Canadian, or North American, boarding experience – "Why else would you come to Canada?" he says – the school's student body is 83-per-cent North American. The remaining 17 per cent is carefully apportioned.
"I will only take a few from any one country and we have eight boarding houses and I will disperse them around the boarding houses," Mr. Johnston says. "So instead of hanging out with your own clan, you're actually fully integrated into our culture."
With 415 boarders, as opposed to about 110 day students, Brentwood is the unusual situation where the boarding population outweighs those who go home at the end of the day. On top of that, Brentwood is a true 24/7 boarding experience. The school moved to a seven-day-a week boarding arrangement, even for local students.
While the school used to charter buses to the ferry terminals to allow children, particularly the 50 per cent or so from British Columbia, to catch the boat back to the mainland and their parents on the weekends, he says the lack of demand forced them to stop that.
The fact that students want to stay on campus over the weekend and participate in a full slate of activities, including ski trips to nearby Mount Washington, allows for a greater number of culturally inclusive activities. One of these are the year-round celebrations of culture, where students from each of the nationalities enrolled at the school will take one evening and show what makes their culture unique to the rest of the student body.
"We had a Nigerian dinner and there were about five different serving stations and different types of food and [the students] were all in their traditional dress and music was playing," Mr. Johnston says. "It was fabulous."
At Bishop's College School in Sherbrooke, cultural integration is built into morning assembly and chapel. Over the course of 20-25 minutes, the student body of 265 will kick things off by singing what Tyler Lewis, the head of school, describes as "songs of the world."
After any announcements, a major presentation takes place, where, as a community, the students can discuss different nationalities and religions. The school has also connected with Bishop's University, as well as the head of Quebec's Anglican church to bring in leaders to help further those discussions.
"At first there are a few who are a bit reserved until they understand that it's a really welcoming and safe place to explore our differences and give kids a chance to embrace them," Mr. Lewis says.
He adds that differences in cultures and perspectives is heavily woven into the International Baccalaureate curriculum that the school follows. The school also uses national holidays as an access point to promote cultural understanding, using food and music to further that aim.
"We do a lot to embrace those holidays as moments when we can do deeper dives on culture," Mr. Lewis says. An example is Mexican Independence Day, "and Chinese New Year is a worldwide celebration that we embrace."
As home to 750 students, including 275 boarders, Appleby College in Oakville, Ont., has a diverse student body hailing from more than 40 countries.
The school uses Sunday evenings to explore cultural differences, allowing students the opportunity talk about their homelands and what's important to them. It also has a mentorship system in place.
By placing a returning student with an incoming one, it helps to ease the transition to a new school, and can also can pay a healthy return when it comes to cultural integration.
"The cultural piece will be taken care of almost on its own if the student feels really part of the community, a sense of belonging," says Tom Karcz, assistant head of school, student life.
It's an idea that has also been championed at Trafalgar Castle School in Whitby, Ont., a girls' school of 220, of which about 80 are boarders, with roughly three-quarters of that number coming from China.
To help assimilate new girls into the school, Trafalgar Castle initiated a scheme called Boarder Buddies, which pairs a boarder with a day-girl's family. That relationship, and the resultant cultural exchange, unfolds over the course of the school year.
"That family will invite the boarder over to spend a weekend multiple times throughout the year, to maybe come and celebrate Thanksgiving, whatever it is," says Rosemary Garcia, director of student wellness and support at the school.
The school also creates seating plans at meal times and in classrooms, and selects roommates for the boarders in a conscious effort to force them out of their comfort zone.
"We want them to be comfortable … but we also want to help them with that inclusion and diversity piece and get to know so many other people," Ms. Garcia says.
In addition to putting on themed food nights and presentations and seminars, as well as organizing weekend trips around the province, the school has gone so far as to invite bands to perform that represent a specific culture, she says.
"Our goal isn't so much integrating our girls, as it is celebrating the diversity of other cultures and all the cultures that make Canada what it is."