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Thinking Big

For Columbia International College, excellence isn't an achievement, it's a habit.

If there were a Guinness Book of boarding schools in Canada, one of the few records that Columbia International College wouldn’t hold is age. With more than 1800 students, it’s not just the largest in Canada, it's the largest in North America. With students arriving from in excess of 70 countries, it’s also the most culturally diverse—the school and operates a liaison office that interacts with parents and students in nine languages: English, French, Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean, Russian, Turkish, Portuguese, and Spanish. Columbia has more academic partnerships than any other, including nine Canadian universities and three beyond our borders: the University of London (UK), the State University of New York, and the University of Canberra, Australia. The school also tops the charts of post-secondary awards, with graduating students earning in excess of $3 million in scholarship funding last year alone.

Equally impressive, given that range of accomplishment, is that the school has yet to celebrate its 40th anniversary. It began in 1979 with just 9 students, though the student body grew to more than 100 students in the second year, when Ron Rambarran, the current principal, came on staff. He recalls that the things that occupied their minds in those days were a bit different than today. “Our first student council asked if they could initiate a lunch service.” They did. This was it: “Students would walk each day to the corner of Garth and Mohawk to purchase buns, cold cuts, and chocolate milk at the local deli.” Back on campus the volunteers made sandwiches which they then sold at cost.

As quaint as that story is, the great strength of Columbia is nevertheless embedded within it: an ability to recognize the specific needs of the students and an unwavering dedication to finding creative, efficient ways of meeting them. As a result, families and students have beaten a path to Columbia’s door. Today the school school has grown to encompass two main campuses, residences, and a range of student services—dining halls, libraries, counselling services, on-campus ESL classes, a medical clinic, a student development office, a dedicated university placement office—unequalled at any secondary institution in North America. The school also acquired Bark Lake, a 700-acre leadership and outdoor education centre in the Haliburton Highlands of central Ontario.

Thinking differently

Typically, when we think of boarding school, we don't think of schools like Columbia. We think of the older institutions rather than current ones: Eton rather than Brentwood; oak paneling rather than concrete and glass. We tend also to imagine a fairly narrow student population, rather than a broader spectrum of ability, interest, and background. Columbia isn’t party to any of those preconceptions. It is unique precisely because it was created in order to provide something that hadn’t existed before, addressing a student population with a unique set of needs. Prime among them isn’t adventure, or independence, but opportunity.  

“When I left home as an international student," says founder and executive director Clement Chan, "there was no school that met the needs of international students.” It was an absense that he felt acutely. “At that time there was only one space at university for every 10 000 students in Hong Kong so many, many students went abroad for education.” At 17, his father gave him $800 and he came to Canada. It wasn't easy. Half of the money was gone the moment he arrived, used to pay tuition. He lived for the next eight months on what was left. He chuckles today when recalling what his life was like during that first year, though he likely didn’t at the time. There were language barriers, housing issues.

It was that experience—of feeling displaced, far away from home, dealing with the challenges of culture and life—that later informed the creation of Columbia. “Schools that were taking in international students in those days were very basic in facilities,” says Chan. “They were in the basements of churches or the second floor of a 711 store.” When a family member was in touch wondering where she could send her son to study in Canada, Chan decided to create a school that would provide the opportunities that she was looking for.

He still has that letter, and is proud of what it meant to him then as well as what it represents to him today. Columbia, from the outset, would distinguish itself as a supportive environment that promotes a rich cultural and academic experience and, in turn, promote academic success. “Over the years we have developed what we believe is the best model to fully support international students,” says Chan, and in turn they’ve come from all corners of the globe. “I’m sure we were the first school in Canada to have high school students from Kazakhstan.” What he perhaps didn’t foresee is that students would arrive from far less exotic locations, including the US and Canada.

What Chan also likely doesn’t consider is how the school is an expression of the tradition of boarding school in Canada historically. The best schools are the ones that do what Columbia has done: offer a specific service to a specific type of student. The National Ballet School isn’t the right school for all students, though it’s by far the best school in Canada for the students who attend it. Likewise, Columbia was formed in an awareness of an acute need and spent the intervening decades addressing that need. It’s perhaps what Clement Chan wishes he could have had when he first arrived on Canadian soil, and therefore he is delighted to be able to provide it to those arriving now: possibility, opportunity, and support. For the students that attend Columbia today, it’s a dream come true. 

—by Glen Herbert
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