Given all of that, the school is also surprisingly young. 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 they are today. He says that in 1980 “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, it underscores something that boarding schools have always done: recognize the specific needs of students and work to provide a means of achieving them. Over the long history of boarding school in Canada, those needs have changed continually. Initially, the goals were narrowly defined. Students were educated in order to succeed in administrative roles within a colony that was geographically remote from the seat of government. Through confederation, the experiences of the World Wars, and changes within the social order, schools continually assessed what students needed and worked to provide it. Today, that process continues. Boarding students today aren’t the boarding students of a century ago, just as the boarding schools, too, aren’t what they were.
Columbia is an example of that. 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 absence 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 7-Eleven 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, promotes 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 that Columbia is now an expression of the tradition of boarding school that Columbia is now an expression of. The best schools are the ones that do what Columbia has done: offer a specific service, to a specific type of student. The Alberta Ballet School isn’t the right school for all students, though for the students who attend it, it’s the best school for them. Likewise, Columbia was formed with 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.