Staying Connected While Worlds Apart

From her home in Gresham, Oregon, Marbella Rodriguez-Ramirez feels well-connected with the boarding community – despite her 237 sisters and brothers currently being in 28 countries.

When school closed early for Spring Break as a precaution amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the last thing Marbella expected was that she would continue to experience aspects of her boarding life from Oregon. But the school’s commitment to relationships and connections with students meant that maintaining boarding life in some capacity was important.

Marbella celebrates during a fun House Games challenge.

“It feels like I’ve brought boarding home with me. It’s reassuring that I still have connections with my houseparents and there are still ways for me to see all the girls within the house,” says Marbella, a Grade 11 student in Symons House. “It makes it feel like we’re not really gone [from SMUS]; it’s more that we’re still together but just on a screen.”

Since the start of Term 3, boarding students have had opportunities each week to gather virtually as a house, check in nightly with their houseparents and enjoy community-wide events.

“We’re looking at, ‘What are the key things we want to achieve in staying connected? How can we show the students we’re still here for them, and that they’re in our hearts and we’re still thinking about them?’,” says Keith Driscoll, Director of Boarding and Student Life. “There was lack of closure because of how the in-person boarding year ended. If we’ve done our job well, this was a home, and this is a place where those students know they have other students and adults who are there for them, and who aren’t ready to say, ‘Our relationship is over.’”

Relationships in Boarding

The key pieces that remain are based on the different relationships that exist in a boarding house: one-on-one, house-wide and boarding-wide.

To that end, houseparents are still in contact with students, including boarding advisors checking in weekly. There are houseparents on virtual “duty” five days a week in a Google Meet video conference where students can drop in for a chat. Each of the six boarding houses have an all-house meeting every week, and there is a boarding-wide event scheduled most Sundays, including boarders’ chapels and a year-end awards ceremony.

“As a houseparent, you create a relationship that is more than just academic; you’re creating one of support and care, and you’re giving a student another adult who can give them support and help when a student reaches out,” Keith says. “And it goes the other way, too. The students provide joy and inspiration to those houseparents. We are also missing those relationships, and want to feel that sense of continuity, and want to get to the end of the year and provide closure in a way that students feel they’ve been honoured. Their experience, while different, is still meaningful and important.”

Toby competes during a House Games race.

Grade 11 Bolton House student Toby Wu, who has been at SMUS since Grade 9, says that while he will miss many of the in-person year-end boarding activities he looks forward to, he appreciates the effort that boarding staff are putting in to keep as many traditions as possible alive.

“It’s definitely going to be different this year doing things virtually because I have such strong memories of winning the House Cup for the past couple years and celebrating and hugging each other,” he says from his home in Vancouver. “But I like how we’re keeping the community going and making sure the spirit carries on.”

Consistent Connections

Alana on her first day at SMUS in September.

Grade 10 Timmis boarder Alana Norie, who started at SMUS in September, says she felt a strong sense of community in boarding since Day 1 and is missing those in-person connections because those bonds run deep.

“It’s crazy how close we got in a day, a week, two weeks, seven months because you go from never knowing these people to spending so much time with them. It really is a place that feels like home,” says Alana from her home in Squamish, BC. “This is a place where everyone is themselves and everyone is supportive of each other, just as a home would be. The sisterhood we’ve created in our house is more than a friendship, it really is more like a family.”

Keith says he has been impressed by the level of maturity and passion for community exhibited by students during the last couple of months. In particular, he highlights two recent student-run digital chapels that focused on the importance of hope and optimism.

And while it may seem unusual to continue the boarding program while students are at home, that hope and optimism spreading throughout the community while everyone is apart is key to the boarding experience. Boarding is more than just a roof over students’ heads while they’re at school; it’s all about the connections students make and maintain while at SMUS and beyond.

“I didn’t think boarding would come home with me. I thought it would have been totally different and things would have just stopped,” says Marbella. “The school did such a good job in such a small amount of time to keep the students connected with each other and with all of the people around us at SMUS, and keeping that community together. I really appreciate it; it’s helped me a lot.”

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