Writings on the people, programs and philosophies behind BSS.

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Students Without Borders

Boarders at BSS

Ask Grade 10 student Mariana Brizuela to share her experience arriving as a boarder to BSS in September and her face lights up, even when discussing the challenges. Until just four days before classes started, she and her younger sister Veronica (a Grade 8 boarder) had never before visited Canada, never mind Toronto, never mind the school itself. Growing up in Mexico City, she didn’t even have winter clothing. And then, of course, she felt insecure about her English fluency.

“My first thought was, ‘This is going to be my home for the year so I should learn as much as I can,” she says, admitting that when classes began, she lacked the confidence to engage. “It was a little bit hard at first; I thought if I said something weird or wrong, everyone would laugh. But I came here to learn English so I realized, it doesn’t matter if I make a mistake and I ask my friends to always [correct] me.”

Three weeks into classes, she had overcome her initial shyness, “I thought it was going to take a long time to get along with the girls and staff; but it happened really quickly,” she says, equal parts candid and confident.

Mariana’s story would likely ring true for other BSS boarders, past and present. Of the 79 girls currently enrolled, 80 per cent hail from outside Canada. Some, like Mariana, have previously attended all-girls schools, or even other boarding schools. But the newness can be overwhelming – that is, until they discover the support that flows throughout the Boarding community and the encouragement to seek opportunities through all aspects of BSS life. Together, they are as representative of the school’s diversity as its unity; and yet, they’re also just like all other BSS girls who head to “The Ville” after class and take the TTC (once they’re old enough) to wherever they’re going in the city.

Two years ago, Hana Zhauken travelled from Almaty, Kazakhstan, to Toronto to visit her aunt for the summer. When they noticed her visa allowed her an extended stay, she found herself applying to BSS on a whim and beginning class shortly thereafter. Now in Grade 12 and nearing graduation, she says she feels far more well-rounded than she would be, had she returned home that summer.

“I was always involved in school life – I took theatre [in Almaty] – but when I came to BSS, I evolved more. BSS life is all about leadership. We have a lot of guest speakers and teachers who encourage you to take on leadership roles,” says Hana, who also notes that it is a recurring theme in the Chapel homilies. “They give you as many opportunities as possible to take on a leadership role.”

Accordingly, Hana applied to be a head mentor among the boarders this year and as one of six on the Mentor Council, she advises some of the younger boarders in addition to regularly planning activities. During her spares, she volunteers as an ambassador, giving tours to prospective and incoming day school students. She sits on the Chapel Council, as well.

“BSS is a wonderful school because you feel like you want to be involved,” says Hana, who aspires to be a financial analyst on Wall Street.

Boarding advisors, too, notice how the girls are profoundly shaped by the months and years when 298 Lonsdale Road serves as their home away from home.

According to a survey of 2,700 American and Canadian students commissioned by the Association of Boarding Schools (TABS), boarding students log 17 hours per week of homework time, nearly double the nine hours spent by private day students.

“Girls from Grades 7–12 have shown so much strength and the willingness to prove themselves as substantial leaders
in the future,” says Zhorrah Grant, who is
new to BSS as a Boarding Advisor this year, but previously held a similar position at a school in New Brunswick. “Our Boarding Council in the Boarding community demonstrates tremendous effort in advocating for themselves.”

She singles out the younger students for their remarkable curiosity and personal growth. “They learn about new cultures and new aspects of life,” she maintains. “They are so intrigued by wanting to know more and more about everything.”

And it helps that they have myriad ways to quench their curiosity in an already impressive array of teams and clubs. Boarders are divided into two “Houses” (St. Hilda’s and St. Monica’s) which include girls from all grades. These Houses are each subdivided into three smaller “Family” groups and assigned a specific Boarding Advisor. These groupings support age-specific growth and development and are led by dedicated Boarding Program Co-ordinators for Grades 7–9 (St. Bridget’s) and Grades 10–12 (St. Joan’s). The groups, which consist of boarders of all ages, dine together on Monday nights, take a cooking class together, participate in inter-family debates, and go on city

excursions. On other occasions, the entire group will assemble for Karaoke night and, as Ms. Grant describes it, “sing their hearts out.”

The hope is that these extended families nurture meaningful bonds that, while not replacing true familial ones, offer similar fulfillment – particularly when dealing with homesickness. “I think friendship is at the heart of Boarding,” says Boarding Advisor, Caileigh Trethewey, who explains that girls stay in the same family through their time in Boarding. “New girls see that other girls have been through this. They’re not alone, and that feeling of not being alone is really important.”

Fortunately, today’s boarders live in the age of Skype and FaceTime, so they can readily communicate with friends and family. Advisors also include a progress report with the student’s report cards, and will send parents email updates, often with photos, following a girl’s athletic competition or theatre performance.

But for Mariana, who messages with her parents daily and joins her sister for a family Skype chat on Sunday nights, the boarder family can be just as supportive when challenges arise. “It’s hard when you don’t have your mother to go home to and say someone at school wasn’t nice,” she admits. “So now I tell my roommate.”

“Originally, I thought the main objective was to speak well and have a nice accent,” she says. “But actually, I believe the main objective now is to be independent and take care of things instead of having your parents do it all. And to share perspectives with people who think differently – that’s what has been really helpful.”

By Amy Verner
Spring 2015