American Boarding Schools – Phillips Exeter Academy

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Many Indonesian high school students choose to leave home early to go to American community colleges. What those students do not know, however, is that there is another option they should consider for their education: boarding school. I applied to Phillips Exeter Academy in December 2008. By the grace of God, I received my acceptance in March 2009 and enrolled soon after. Little did I know that I was going to have the hardest three years of my life. To be fair, they were also the best years I have had in my life so far; I only wish that someone had told me just a bit about what I was going into. Thus, for those who are thinking of applying to boarding schools, I have made a basic lowdown of my experience, to provide you just a little bit more insight before you start writing those essays for your application!

The Academics – The Workload Will Blow Your Mind

Before I start talking about the workload, I must first explain about Harkness, the unique teaching system that originated from Exeter and now used in many other boarding schools. Students do not sit on rows of desks but rather sit around the Harkness table to discuss the material they have read the night before. This encourages students to challenge, question and reflect on the material in ways they would not have by listening to a lecture. Participation counts towards your final grade, thus you cannot just sit quietly, nor will you be able to bullshit – pardon my language – your way through class since your teachers will immediately call you out. Thus, a student is obligated to cover the material (and by that, I do not mean simply skim through it) the night before in order to do well in the class. Each class has a different workload, obviously, but even the easiest classes will have at least an hour of reading per night. Each student will be taking five classes, so if you are lucky, you will get only five hours per night, but as you get older, count on getting at least seven or eight.

Students will also receive assessments  (I was not a science person, thus most of my classes required me to write papers rather than do lab reports). And believe me, the expectations set for your written work are extremely high. Dan Brown, the bestselling writer of The DaVinci Code, even described Exeter the place where he learned to write. Thus, it is definitely safe to say that you will definitely spend more than an hour a night when a paper is due the next day.

To conclude, you are expected to be able to think critically – through close reading of the material every night – and to express these thoughts adequately – both in class and in writing. My friends, these three things are no easy feat to start with. But when you also have Ivy-league educated, published teachers and thoughtful, intelligent, hardworking classmates, it will be extremely, extremely hard. The upside? If you survive everything, you will learn to think, speak, and write better than you have ever thought you possibly could.

The Opportunities Offered – Clubs and the Likes

One of the other things that made me want to go to boarding school was the list of clubs each school had. There was a huge variety at Exeter, from the prestigious clubs like Exeter’s Democratic Club and Exeter’s Debate Society, to the seemingly random yet really interesting clubs like the Exeter Muggles in Denial, a club for all the Harry Potter lovers. I loved that I have more options to the activities I could do outside of classes, since I was not very interested in sports or student council, which were the two main extracurricular activities that were offered at my school back home. Students truly have the opportunity to deepen their passions in things they already love, or explore activities they have always been curious about, but never had the chance to. Lucky for me, I had the chance to do both at Exeter. I have always loved to write, thus it felt fitting that I joined The Exonian, Exeter’s weekly newspaper and also the oldest preparatory school newspaper in the country. But I also wanted to do something new, so I decided to do West African Drumming once a week to fulfill my music requirements. These two activities certainly colored my Exeter experience.

The only downside to joining a club is that it can also be exhausting. Perhaps the Exonian is the worst example of this; working on a weekly newspaper is the most tiring extracurricular you can choose. I had many Wednesdays when I stayed at the Exonian office from 12 p.m. to 10 p.m., struggled to finish my homework till 1 a.m., and woke up again at 5 a.m. to finish working on my section of the paper before it was printed at 8 a.m. Of course, we didn’t have to work as hard as we did, but I was in a club where all the other members are extremely dedicated and driven. But the experience I got out of it? Completely priceless.

The Isolation… and the Long-Lasting Friendships You Get Out of It

If you choose to go to a boarding school in the East Coast, like I did, chances are you will be completely isolated. First, the location of your school will most likely be in the middle of nowhere (yes, they may be an hour away from major cities like New York or Boston, but believe me, you won’t be able to go off campus that much). Second, you will probably have less than five Indonesian friends on campus (if you’re even that lucky… I was the only one during my three years at Exeter). The freezing cold winter weather will get you down, the fact that no one understands the country you come from will get you down, and oh, the bad dining hall food (which actually isn’t really bad at all – the repetition of meals just makes it seem that way) will get you down. The life of a boarding school student, aside from the tough academics and the busy life, at times will not be kind to you, especially if you are born and raised in warm, friendly Indonesia. One must also keep in mind that boarding school is a completely different experience from college in the fact that your freedom is very limited, and thus you can’t just leave whenever you want. Most students live in dormitories and have pretty early check-in times (the equivalent to a curfew).

But in this case, the lack of freedom will prove to be a blessing in disguise. Living in a dorm essentially provides you with a family. Your proctors are like your older siblings, who look out for you and provide advice, whether it be on crushes or calculus. Your dorm faculties are really like your parents, caring for you as if you were their own children. And of course, who could forget your dorm mates, whom you will share a thousand all-night conversations with? I did not even include the friendships you make outside of the dorm! The people you will meet will be brilliant and passionate and teach you a lot more about life than a classroom ever will. When you graduate, you leave not just with a better sense of the world, but a support system that you know will have your back no matter where you end up. Boarding school experience is an incredibly intense and hard one, and it takes the people who have gone through it to truly understand it. Thus, rest assured you will have friends you will stay in touch with for the rest of your lives, for they have watched you grow, and your roots will always be tangled with theirs.

 

Despite all the hardships I went through, I would never regret the decision of going. I made the best of friends, learned how to work harder than I’ve ever had to, and most importantly, discovered more about myself than I ever would if I had stayed at home. I would never have realized how important writing was for me if I had not worked at the Exonian or written all those English personal essays. Thus, if reading this makes you more excited than scared, then it’s time to get started on that application!

 

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Brea Olivia Salim
Brea Salim spent her first fifteen years in Jakarta, Indonesia, before moving halfway around the world to Exeter, New Hampshire, where she enrolled in Phillips Exeter Academy, a prestigious boarding school made famous by alumni like Mark Zuckerberg, Dan Brown and John Irving. Brea was the only Indonesian student during her three years there and was the seventh Indonesian to graduate from Exeter when she completed her studies in June 2012. Brea then moved again to NYC, where she enrolled in Barnard College, the women's college of Columbia University, intending to pursue an Economics degree. Brea is also the author of ‘Bright Eyes’, a compilation of Brea’s written works during her time at Exeter. Previously, Brea's work has been published in various publications, such as the Jakarta Post, the Jakarta Globe and Jakarta Java Kini. You can read about her gap year adventures at homefortheyear.wordpress.com. If you are interested in reaching her, feel free to email breaolivia@yahoo.com, or if you would like to find out more about her book, check out: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Bright-Eyes-by-Brea-Salim/511794815605846 or follow @brighteyesbybreasalim on Instagram!
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  • Tech_Chick

    Excellent post!

    While I agree quality boarding schools like Exeter, Andover, Choate, St. Paul and the likes are excellent places to develop one’s disciplines and leadership skills early on (and what I personally would choose), sometimes, these places are out of reach for many high school students who go to community colleges, simply due to their prohibitive costs. Boarding schools can be very expensive for students not coming from a privileged background.