Get Aboard: Take a Look at Keystone’s Vibrant Boarding Life

By Communications

When the academic buildings of Keystone Academy close for the school day, the action shifts to the nearby residential compound where boarding students busy themselves with activities that enrich their community lives. Their collective experiences and personal realizations on campus make for unforgettable middle and high school moments, many of which promise to become a source of strength and inspiration for years to come. In this story, we join some previous and current students who walk us through their vibrant boarding life at Keystone.


Stand-out experiences: When dorm events make for unforgettable boarding memories

The new journal of Keystone Class of 2021 member Tori Gu is quickly filling up with anecdotes from her latest escapade in the United States. Now a first-year student at the University of Rochester in New York, Tori relishes the many new experiences her college life brings to her, just like joining school clubs.

Many Keystone graduates like Tori often look back on their experiences as high school boarding students as they adjust to a larger and more multicultural setting. Back in Beijing, Tori was a student leader active in several academic events and residential activities, which allowed her to explore her cultural identity better. For her, this aspect is among the many stand-out lessons from high school that now guide her in college.

“As a Keystone alumna, I am a confident person who knows where my homes are and what I want in this world, my goals, dreams, and more,” Tori said in her recent letter to Head of School Malcolm McKenzie. “I learned that accepting who I am enables me to explore the world openly with confidence.”

For Steven Shi from the Class of 2019, Keystone’s boarding program taught him to have fun—a prime lesson that “gives [him] strength and determination” to take on activities in his life at Middlebury College in Vermont. He is currently a college junior studying computer science and math.

Steven remembers his first month in Middlebury when he felt more anxious about forgetting the names of the people he had just met than actually missing his family and friends back home. He managed homesickness well, since he had lived on the Keystone campus for five years. As he explored his new school further, Steven noticed many similarities to his boarding experience at Keystone.

“One of them is the established dorm community life,” Steven says. “I have lived in two different residential halls and likewise had two different roommates, both of whom share similar hobbies with me. And just like my old Keystone dorm, my current residence is always a place where I can relax and get caught in random yet interesting conversations.”

Three years into college, Steven feels that the academic and personal lessons he learned from Keystone continue to serve him well. However, if he can go back in time, there is one thing that he wishes to have known before moving to the United States.

“It’s only minor—I wish I learned some proper dance moves so I could be less awkward at college parties!” Steven says. “But I actually stopped going to parties after the first few weeks!”

Current Keystone students may find Steven’s wish helpful as they think of exciting dorm activities. The residents of the East 5 (fifth floor) boys’ dormitory actually put street dancing as one of the main challenges in a residential community event that took place in March 2021.

The East 5 Olympics, as the half-weekend event was called, were directly linked to the second keystone of building character and community throughout the residential setting, and aimed to develop camaraderie, community, and communication among the dormitory. Beyond that, the games offered a much-needed bonding moment for the boys since many residential activities had been put on hold or moderated at the time to follow health and safety measures. The activity was postponed twice; it was initially planned for a February 2020 launch, but the then-coronavirus outbreak canceled everything. When it was due to happen a year after, another round of partial school closures forced the student organizers to reschedule.

It wasn’t surprising that the boarders enjoyed the time playing with their peers. The first game, ball-in-a-cup, where players had to bounce a ping pong ball to shoot it into a cup, was scheduled to last for only thirty minutes but went for nearly one-and-a-half hours. After that, the boys went to the basement wushu room for the street dance and rap-and-sing battle. Current tenth grader and cellist Tiger Xing teamed up with his roommate, former Keystone student and pianist Steven Li, to perform the Game of Thrones opening theme music that they had practiced just two days before the games. Although the duo lost the round over some dancers, Tiger made a comeback and won the final game of the night, the pie-eating challenge. On the following day, the boarders headed to the sports field to test their athletic prowess in sprints, relays, and indoor soccer matches.

East 5 dorm parent and Science teacher Brad Gibbs believes that the games allowed students to have fun, and most especially to “practice messing up gracefully.” Although Mr. Gibbs initiated the plans for the games, he let dorm proctors instruct their peers and lead the entire process. The organization—and disorganization—of the games allowed for learning to happen since students helped each other on the spot and eventually understood the relevance of what they were doing.

“One of the great things about Keystone is that students can create their own opportunities for successful failures, where they can be in a situation that allows them to feel messing up is fine and does not matter,” Mr. Gibbs adds. “They can fail gracefully and learn from it. They can draw upon their experience of failure so later in their lives, they can succeed in a task or decision that really matters.”

Tiger feels that the best thing about living in Keystone is that “everyone feels like family,” where dorm parents help them “become a good student and a good person.”

“The Keystone community feels like home,” Tiger adds. “Here, I learned how to be more mindful and respectful of others, especially elders. Keystone helps shape me as a person… even though I feel I’m childish at times!”


Voice Out: How covering campus events colors a student’s community experience

It is 7am and the golden sunrise greets Iris Zhang good morning. After her routine preparation, she goes to the cafeteria downstairs for breakfast with her friends—and gets ready for an invigorating autumn day that will begin with her favorite Higher Level Chinese A Literature class and close with a club session later in the afternoon.

The twelfth grader admits she has gotten busier since entering the Diploma Programme in 2019, but the pressure of studying has not disrupted the rhythm of her daily life. Since entering Keystone’s boarding program in her ninth grade, Iris says she has learned to manage her time better so she can enjoy more non-academic activities. In early October, for example, their Chinese Language class along with their teacher Feng Qiongqiong visited the “Lin Xia Fengya” (lit. “Forest Hermits and Their Stories”) exhibition at the Forbidden City, an event she saw as an opportunity to expand their knowledge of literature and art beyond the classroom.

Such visits to museums and art galleries are among the various weekend and residential activities which Keystone boarders can choose to do with their dorm parents or classmates. Iris is very active in many campus clubs, but the one where she dedicates her time the most is the WeChat publication The Voice.

Iris acts as one of the editors of The Voice, also known as Tomatoes to the entire Keystone student body because of its logo—a big red tomato. Established in 2016, The Voice has become a media platform where Keystone’s budding journalists and digital creatives release their takes on campus life or report their coverage of various community events. The publication comprises a sizeable team of student correspondents who write in Chinese and English, editors, photographers, video producers, visual artists, and operations managers. In its six-year operations, The Voice has published a total of 321 articles and has attracted nearly 3,000 subscribers.

For Iris, the boarding program allows her and The Voice team to write about the many community events happening on campus, as well as cover stories that many other students care about. The team believes that their coverage gives their audience in and out of Keystone more knowledge about the stories and inspirations of their peers. For example, The Voice has a column called “Keystone Figures” that spotlights athletes, eliciting universal acclaim from the student body. The team invites teachers to answer “21 Questions”—and this popular column has featured Ms. Feng, Visual Arts teacher Bolsyn Urmuzov, and most recently, Music teacher Jasmine Yang.

Two years ago, Iris published an article titled “October’s Wind Is Osmanthus Flavor” where she introduced dishes made of the sweet-scented plant. The piece inspired Elsa Liu, the unit manager of the school caterer Chartwells, so much that her team offered an Osmanthus cake the following week. This moved Iris as she felt her work was being recognized by community members. Just recently, she and her teammates conducted a survey that asked students about their favorite dishes. The vote results, announced on The Voice, were seen by Ms. Liu—now an avid follower of the WeChat subscription account—whose team surprised the students by offering their top-voted dishes in the following week.

“Our team’s intention for that survey is not just to get a pulse of what students like,” Iris says. “We wanted students to feel a sense of participation and belongingness. Also, we found that our reports have truly helped more students and Chartwells staff feel our community atmosphere.” Now, The Voice publishes reviews of Chartwells Food Festivals, a regular gastronomic event when the school caterer offers special dishes inspired by the Chinese lunar calendar and cultural festivals from all over the world.

Aside from the weekly The Voice editorial meeting, Iris also busies herself with the newly-opened The Voice Club KAP (Keystone Activities Program), which she launched this school year. Club leaders like her train junior students how to write, interview, and publish articles. As Iris will graduate next year, she is now looking for a successor who will continue The Voice’s editorial and collegiate tradition.

Iris usually finishes The Voice club meeting at 4.30pm and then returns to her dormitory to finish her other academic work. When she is done with these activities, Iris wears yet another hat—she is a dorm head. Iris has remained active on her dorm floor ever since she started living there five years ago. As a dorm head, Iris is responsible for her floor, assisting her dorm parent in checking the hygiene and cleanliness of rooms, conducting head counts, and collecting mobile devices before sleep time. These tasks may sound very trivial, but Iris believes her role is crucial, considering she also provides academic and emotional support to her younger peers. In exam seasons, or even when students feel pressure from mounting academic tasks, Iris would organize activities or lead sessions where dorm residents could voice out their stresses.

“It turns out that I have done so much in five years,” Iris says. “Never did I think that I would have the chance to lead many projects. I’ve come to learn that leadership does not only mean having the capacity to lead others or the opportunity to organize and execute activities—it also means showing responsibility and love. And I feel that Keystone is not only a school but a community that inspires in students a way to live life. Looking at my teachers, classmates, and campus residents brings me this unforgettable emotion that colors my experience as a Keystone community member.”


Join the Club: How campus and boarding groups become service opportunities

Tiffany Ji and her friends-slash-baking-buddies Sunny Wu and Eva Yuan had recently spent a weekend afternoon making chocolate cupcakes for a bake sale to benefit Xiyangyang Nursing Home, an institution for the elderly in Shunyi. The trio has been working with Xiyangyang for their Creativity, Activity, Service (CAS) project since 2020.

This project began in 2018, when Liu Yuhan from the Keystone Class of 2020 and another friend initially planned to film a documentary about nursing homes, inspired by their observations of the elderly living on campus. Although Yuhan did not interact much with the yeye and nainai—many of whom are parents of Keystone residential faculty and staff—their presence made her reflect on the situation and struggles of other older people, especially those living on the fringes of society.

Yuhan’s documentary plan failed after nursing home residents declined to be videographed. Instead, she and her friend went on a “trail run” organized by a charity organization for volunteers to nursing homes. The duo tapped into this idea and launched their CAS project—weekend visits to Xiyangyang Nursing Home—to make the most of the school’s curriculum to address social issue faced by older people.

Director of Residential Life and IBDP English Teacher Nehemiah Olwande recalls applauding his advisee for coming up with a worthwhile project, which eventually became a staple weekend activity for Keystone student boarders. Not only did the students decorate rooms and teach crafting and other handiwork to Xiyangyang’s residents; they also celebrated holidays and birthdays together and took them out for strolls to listen to their life stories and problems. At the time, Mr. Olwande supervised a group of high school students who wrote their reflections after visiting the institution.

“As Keystone students, most of us live a relatively privileged life, but world is not like this for everyone,” Yuhan says. “Many of the elderly people we have met do not have children or relatives. Some of them served in the army, and others survived a three-year famine. For over six years, they have felt neglected and longed for company. They have so many stories—and young people should listen.”

“The children learned a lot about the difficulties faced not only by the seniors in the nursing home but also their caregivers—specifically about how much responsibility these nurses shoulder,” Mr. Olwande says. “It became a light-bulb moment for the students. Their moments in Xiyangyang made them wonder about the aging process and the possibility of losing their faculties. All of these started from one student’s observation in the dining hall.”

Service-oriented learning forms a major part of the Keystone curriculum and community, and it integrates closely into student life. Mr. Olwande believes that experiences such as Yuhan’s are made possible by what he considers a “hidden curriculum” in Keystone’s residential program, or the implicit learning opportunities students get from seeing their teachers live with their own parents and children. For him, it also “keeps students in check, in terms of what they say, behave, and how they interact with others.”

Yuhan’s CAS project is now being managed by Tiffany and her friends, who visited Xiyangyang several times for their weekend activity between 2019 and early 2020. Since taking over the project in November 2020, the trio has organized several fundraisers and even launched a WeChat subscription account where they publish articles about volunteering for nursing homes. In late January 2021, they coordinated the delivery of material donations the Keystone Service Council had collected during its annual Giving Tree program. Now, the girls are waiting for the health and safety restrictions to be relaxed to visit the nursing home again.

“This is my fourth year at Keystone, and I have learned a lot as a boarding student,” Tiffany shares, “but the most significant one is caring for others. The sense of community at Keystone is powerful and I can really feel how much people support each other. This is such a meaningful experience because it allows me to be part of something that can improve society and help people who might be unable to speak up.”

There are many other service-oriented student groups at Keystone, including the long-running Light and Love KAP (Keystone Activities Program), a club initiated by former Science teacher Katarina Gram in 2017, when she discovered the Light and Love School that supports orphans, children with disabilities, and less-privileged migrant youth. Over the years, club members have organized weekly immersion activities, devised special courses based on Keystone lessons, and launched seasonal fundraisers to help the school. Their latest event happened in early October 2021, when student musicians and dancers from different grades gathered for the two-hour talent show titled “Enlighten”. The club raised nearly RMB 6,000 (USD 937), which would be used to buy daily necessities and winter clothing for the Light and Love children.

Current senior students Joanna Li and Sarah Liu are club members whose CAS project teaches Light and Love children how to paint. Joanna drew inspiration from this experience for her out-of-school initiative: a gallery featuring the artworks of Light and Love children in her hometown of Shandong. Previously, she had launched a separate project that delivered LED lamps to a rural primary school in the province.

Besides doing service projects, Joanna and Sarah work together on so many different student life activities that some of their teachers consider them as inseparable “twins”—a moniker that they fully embrace. Having been roommates for three years already, Joanna and Sarah prop each other up in academics or personal matters and always remain present whenever one needs the other. Both girls believe being roommates affords them a feeling of company, just like what they have with their siblings back home.

Sarah recalls the many times she and Joanna have stayed up very late just to talk about many topics. Their favorite?

“Trash talk,” Sarah laughs while speaking.

“And Tiktok.” Joanna follows with a chuckle.

Both girls are preparing for their college applications and considering studying in the United States. But their biggest plan for now is to stay together, perhaps in the same city, so they can rent a house and remain roommates—and twins—even in college.

“This process is just really precious,” Sarah says. “I think I won’t have a similar experience in the future.”