Here's What It's Like to Study at Some of the Best Boarding Schools in the U.S.

For these Filipino teens, the opportunity to study at the best prep schools on the U.S. East Coast came with a tradeoff-they’d be away from their families for most of the year.

Margarita Isabel Villalon Binamira

St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, has a picturesque campus spread out over 2,000 acres of land. No wonder Isabel, who enjoyed photography as a hobby, felt an instant connection when she went on a school tour. “I tagged along with a friend who was looking for a boarding school, and St. Paul’s was the only school that jumped out at me. My interviewer put it best when she said that there would be a school that really ‘spoke to you.’ St. Paul’s practically screamed at me!” The only child of Joel and Marga Binamira, adjusting to life without her parents was tough at first. “I found myself missing lots of little things about home. I talked to my parents a lot, and I also tried to replicate as many things about home as I could. I made instant sinigang once in a while, and put the heater up in my room all the way.”


As an Episcopalian school, a day at St. Paul’s begins with a gathering at the Chapel. Isabel, who graduated in 2013, then attended classes such as Pre-Calculus and Physics before lunch, and after that, it’s back for more lectures until around 3. Sports and other activities took up the rest of the day, and then there’s the school paper, the Pelican, which Isabel took photos for. There are a few other Filipinos on campus, and together they recently organized a dinner for the school’s International Society to showcase the food and culture of the Philippines. Isabel’s dad, who writes the popular food blog Marketmanila, would have been proud.

When the temperature dipped on the U.S. East Coast, there was no other place Isabel would rather be than home. As expected, much of the family traditions she missed involved food: “I looked forward to eating home cooked food, as well as authentic Filipino food during the holidays—especially lechon.”

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Jaime Eduardo Lopez De Jesus

During his freshman year at St. Paul’s School, Jaime had settled in quite nicely with the help of two other Filipinos Antonio Roxas, a sophomore, and Isabel Binamira. “We were all members of the Pelican school newspaper and the International Society. Antonio and I also plan to row crew during the spring,” shared Jaime. It helped too that the football-loving son of James and Rica de Jesus had an outgoing personality. One of his most memorable experiences was getting to host his own radio show. “The school had its own radio station that can be heard in the whole New Hampshire area and I was able to get a show every Wednesday night. It was so much fun as I got to interview my friends and share my favorite music with my listeners,” he enthuses.

Finding a balance between academic work and extra-curricular activities, Jaime strove to live by one of the school's guiding principles, “Freedom with Responsibility.” Five months into the school year, Jaime was still fascinated by campus life. “The experience is unparalleled. You live with 520 other people who are just as enthusiastic as you are to learn. There will always be someone who shares the same interest as you. You are encouraged to try and do new things, and you are respected for being smart and great at whatever your interests are.” 


Natasha Consuelo Zobel de Ayala

Fortunate enough to be given the chance to pick her own school, Natasha, the eldest daughter of Fernando and Kit Zobel de Ayala, chose to attend St. George’s School in Rhode Island. “I felt a great sense of community when I visited. Everyone was so welcoming and friendly. I felt so comfortable right away. I really liked the girls who showed me around and all the students that I met. They all had nice stories to tell about the school.”


Coming from the International School Manila, Natasha was intrigued by the Harkness system, where roundtable discussions take the place of lectures, which the school employs for most academic subjects. Located near the scenic city of Newport, St. George’s overlooks Second Beach, and its campus features many cross-country running trails, among the best in the East Coast. Just like her dad, Natasha is an avid runner and has made it to the school’s cross-country team, where, as the school paper reports, “She consistently was one of the team’s top four finishers.” 

A school with a view; and King Hall

During her second year of living abroad, Natasha’s had coped quite well with the change in environment and had learned to be more responsible and dedicated to her studies, perfecting her time-management skills. When she got together with the other Filipino students, talk inevitably leads to “yummy sinigang and adobo back home.” “I always asked for a bowl of sinigang or a plate of rice and adobo as soon as I arrived!” After that, it was time to catch up with her friends and family, and, she quickly adds, “My dogs, turtles, and other pets too! It was difficult to be living away from them but I knew that my parents are very proud of me and I couldn’t wait to see them every time we had a major break or holiday. It's also nice to sleep in my own room and enjoy the food and the comforts of home.”


Bettina and Isabella Lopez Lichuaco

Isabella Lopez Lichauco
In her final year of prep school, Isabella had taken part in most of Middlesex School’s proud school traditions: “My favorite was the yearly Casino Night during the middle of winter, where with a date, everyone gets dressed up, plays casino games, and goes swing dancing. It was definitely one of my favorite nights all year,” she reveals. Having been named Student Activities Officer that year, she was chiefly responsible for keeping other traditions, such as the Spring Carnival, the Luau dance, and the Prom alive.


Buildings on campus

The eldest daughter of Jorge and Margarita Lichauco, Isabella was initially drawn to the school because of its writing program, and her passion for writing has grown deeper through the years, enjoying in particular her art and English classes. “The English program at my school was rigorous, but I really appreciated the material so much more because of the class discussions at my English classes. I had been blessed with very passionate English teachers, and have sat through many memorable and engaging conversations about literature. However, my art classes were definitely my favorites of each semester. I had taken several art classes throughout my time there, in my senior year, I took up Advanced Placement Studio Art and Advanced Placement Art History.”

A chief writer for the Middlesex Anvil school paper, Isabella couldn’t wait for her semester breaks. “I missed the weather, the restaurants, the places I hung out at with my friends, the warm atmosphere, and above all, my family and friends. I was always most excited to come for Christmas break, because nothing beats Christmas in the Philippines. It is nice to come home to warm weather, especially from the New England winter. Since the majority of my cousins do not live in the Philippines, it is nice to be all together again, especially for my Lolo's birthday, on Christmas day.” 


Bettina Lopez Lichauco
Bettina is Isabella’s younger sister. Having a big sister to help her adjust to a new school might have been a plus, but Bettina ultimately chose to attend Middlesex because of the “sense of community” that she felt while visiting. Middlesex, she says, was where “I could be comfortable in a setting that isn’t too large and overbearing. And although a small community, it’s vibrant with diversity, somewhere where everyone can find a place.” Like other boarding school students, Bettina’s experience had been good for her personal development, doing wonders for her sense of independence and being self-sufficient, “not something I can do as easily back home,” she admits. “I’ve matured and also developed lifelong skills, like a good work ethic. I can definitely take care of myself now.”

Bettina and her athletics team

While she reveled in her independence abroad, Bettina admits that homesickness affected her from time to time. And when those feelings come around, Christmas and summer breaks couldn’t come soon enough. “Being away from home makes you realize what you have and be more grateful for it. Coming home was always exciting and never lost its novelty. I always looked forward to seeing my whole family, my dog, and my friends. And, of course, stuffing my face with sisig, lechon, adobo, and sinigang!” 


Luis Vicente Paterno Locsin

Luis is the son of architect Andy Locsin and Mailin Locsin, Beacon Academy’s Head of School, and went to Northfield Mount Hermon (NMH). He transferred there in his sophomore year after completing the ninth grade at the Fay School in Boston, which his father also attended in the 1970s. “I chose NMH because it seemed right. When I was touring the school, I could see myself as a student here. It was also lot more relaxed than other schools. It had no dress code, no Saturday classes, and students would call their teachers by their first name, which shows a level of trust and connectivity between the students and teachers. It had a great arts program, a great diversity program, and amazing sports.”


Luis was attracted to the school's excellent sports programs.

Luis, who joined the varsity football team as an offensive and defensive lineman, notes that the school doesn’t have a typical school schedule, but aside from academics, students are required every day to put in some form of manual labor, which is called “workjob.” “It ranges from chopping onions in the kitchen, to working in the school farm, to being a technology advisor in the Library. Mine was ‘Building Cleaner.’ Essentially, I cleaned the gym, swept the floors, vacuumed the rugs, and wiped down the fitness equipment.” Like many Filipinos living abroad, it’s the thought of food that makes Luis count the days till the next flight back home. “When I’m in the U.S., I miss having my home-cooked meals. And the meals were probably one of the things that I was always excited for whenever I went back for my summer and Christmas breaks. And I also always looked forward to seeing my family.” 


Adela Pas Paterno Locsin

A member of Phillip Exeter Academy’s Class of 2013, Adela is Luis’s older sister. She moved to the exclusive prep school in the 10th grade, after studying at the Beacon School in Manila. Having lived away from her family at a young age brought Adela a sense of independence and maturity beyond her years. Studying at Exeter “allowed me to shape my own worldview among people from around the world. There was an opportunity for thoughtful discourse, and there was something about sitting around a table with people who grew up in different environments and learning and growing from each other,” she says.


A typical boarding school day started at 8 a.m. and ended at 6 p.m., packed with classes, track and field, and dance company activity, not to mention her work on the yearbook committee, where she was a director of photography, and also on the school newspaper, the Exonian, where she was the head photographer. “I spent about seven hours a week in the office for meetings and organizing photographs, and about six more during the week taking photos of sports games and events around campus. When I got back to my dorm at around 9, there was still homework to be done! It was a never-ending cycle of things I have to do, but I had learned to love the hectic lifestyle.”

Even in the States, signs of homesickness crept in. “Sometimes I would catch myself using Filipino phrases in regular conversation, like kanina or kilig–it was so difficult to explain some Filipino phrases in English! I would often miss food from home–whenever I came to school, I always bring huge bags of dried mangoes, which were gone in the first month! Pancit canton was also something I liked to bring that made me miss home–and Choco Crunchies! When in Manila, I looked forward to spending time with my family and friends the most, because the hardest thing about being away from home was not spending as much time with your family and friends, especially if you left home before college. It is so important to cherish the time that you have with family, and I have learned to appreciate every little moment that we spend together that much more.”


Christian Robicheau Saguil and Sarah C. Schmid

Christian Robicheau Saguil
With a history spanning two centuries, tradition plays a big part in the Lawrenceville School. Cristian, a former student, is keenly aware of this. There is some family tradition, as his older sister Sophie attended the school and graduated before him. But the biggest tradition he was a part of was the “house system” which dates back to the school’s founding in 1810. “It’s like in Harry Potter where you live in houses like Gryffindor and Slytherin—my house was called Hamill. You live in your houses for your sophomore and junior years. So one of the most special traditions at Lawrenceville was watching or participating in house (American) football. It was the first time I've ever played American football competitively and I really enjoyed it. The house football league has been going on for over a hundred years and is actually the oldest running American football league in the country.”


The school activities

Having attended summer programs before at Choate and Andover, Cristian, the son of Eduardo and Anne Marie Saguil, says the transition to life at boarding school wasn’t that tough. When it comes to actual learning, he believes boarding schools have an innate advantage: “The availability and attitudes of the teachers. The teachers there were very nice and encourages that you talk to them outside of the classroom. And since most of them live on campus, it was so easy to get help at any time of the day. Some teachers gave us their phone numbers and said that we could call or text them at any time if we needed any help.”

Still, there are things even the best teachers can’t fix—the cold weather for one. “The temperature had been in the high 40s or low 50s, it was probably the first time I'd ever missed the Manila heat,” says Cristian. When it was time to return home, aside from getting to see his family and friends, he got to do something he missed a lot when he was in the States: to be able to eat rice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. 


Sarah C. Schmid
Half-Swiss, Sarah spent a lot of time in her father’s home country while growing up. Still, the freezing winter temperatures in the United States had always made her more than happy to come home. First on the agenda? “Catching up with the people I’ve missed, and then going to the beach and spending my time outside in the warm weather!”

At Lawrenceville, Sarah had blended in nicely with students from 32 other countries at the school—its cultural diversity being one of the things the school is known for. Despite this diversity, the school is quite close knit. “I discovered that when I went to look at the school. I realized that Lawrenceville was the kind of place I wanted to spend my high school years.”

Sarah, daughter of Nenet and Hansrudolf Schmid, began her day at 7 a.m. and classes went on till 3 p.m., then she’s off for sports. Sarah was part of the school volleyball team, which helped in making her feel that she belonged. “The sports teams at Lawrenceville have something called a ‘psych.’ The team chooses a theme for their attire that day to unify them, so other students will know that they have a home game or match that afternoon. My volleyball team has had a psych before. It’s quite fun and it really adds to Lawrenceville’s school spirit.”

Sarah and her friends

With the few Filipino students on campus, they’d formed a Filipino Cultural Club, with the aim of bringing them closer and also educating others about the country’s culture. “When I walked by students I know from back home we would tend to slip in a few Tagalog words into our conversation, and made everyone else around us confused. It got quite amusing sometimes.”

Data compiled from boarding school review, private school review, U.S. Department of Education, Niche, and school websites. This story originally appeared in the December/January 2014 issue of Town&Country Philippines. Minor edits have been made for the online version. 

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