Boarding The ‘Independent’ Ship

Sep 17, 2013 1 Min Read

Photo credit : Dennis Jarvis | Flickr

After SPM, I had to decide between two pre-university programmes – A-levels or the International Baccalaureate (IB). I did not want to wait until August to start, and after comparing the tuition fees, I opted for the former. The only question left was, ‘Where?’

Then all of a sudden, before I could tattoo my arm with something I might regret later on, dye my hair hot pink, and kiss my uniform-wearing days goodbye, the decision was made for me. Those plans were dashed: my interview for a scholarship had been successful, and I was to pack my bags and go off to boarding school – Kolej Tuanku Jaafar (KTJ), to be precise.

For a girl who always had the luxury of a home and family to turn to, studying in a boarding school was a huge leap. I struggled to adapt to new rules such as fixed bed times, set study hours, communal toilets and bathrooms – the list goes on. Believe me, getting used to sharing 20 shower cubicles with 75 other girls is not something that comes very naturally for most, unless you have already experienced life in a boarding school. Staying in school on weekdays, unless I wanted to pay for a cab or wait for the bus to go out, was a big change as well.

Initially, I did not enjoy the system at all. Perhaps I had overestimated my ability to adapt to new situations. Perhaps I had come with the wrong expectations. I could not adapt, I found it difficult to find someone to talk to and confide in, and I was not enjoying myself at all.

I ended my first term disheartened. I remember spending the final week of term crying myself to sleep, longing to rush back home. Seeing how miserable I was, my parents offered me the choice to stay or to go. I thought it through, but finally decided that I would not give up on the challenge of boarding school.

Gradually, I adapted to the system, made wonderful friends, and committed myself to studies and sports. I thoroughly enjoyed my experience at the Outward Bound School later that term in spite of the compromised hygiene, severe sunburns, and mosquito bites. Honestly speaking, the ten hour kayak session and three-day jungle trek, alongside other activities, are not as tough as you think they might be, especially when supportive friends push you throughout the adventure. At last, I was able to call KTJ a home away from home, corny though it may sound.

The terms flew by. I learnt how to play hockey, attended an interview with Oxford University, and stayed up into the wee hours of the morning for three weeks to juggle my work and House Singing duties. And now I find myself in Upper Six, a mere term away from freedom and the dreaded final A-levels exams.

I am certain that when my time comes to bid KTJ goodbye, it will be bittersweet. I will finally be able to escape my uniform-wearing days, dye my hair an exotic colour, and once again have the luxury of a personal bathroom. But I will also be leaving a place that holds some of my best memories (communal bathrooms are actually a very good place for conversations!), saying goodbye to the pastoral care that I have been so grateful to have, and missing the fun of having friends who are literally always there for you.

In retrospect, life in boarding school was a good stepping-stone towards living an independent life. I did not just get older the way one does every year. I grew up, but under ‘less harsh’ conditions. I did not have to handle everything on my own like friends at other colleges, but I had my own share of new responsibilities – doing my own laundry, arranging for my own transport to and from KTJ, my duties to the house as a senior student (e.g. ensuring my juniors went to bed at lights out, or else!). Unlike them, I also had a good support system – every student at KTJ is assisted with their university applications, especially if he or she is applying to the UK.

Admittedly though, boarding school life is not for everyone. If you need to go out and socialise often, if unbridled freedom is essential to your being, then perhaps you should give it a miss. But if you would like a different experience, and are not quite ready to handle total independence, then perhaps a British style boarding school may prove to be your cup of tea.

Melissa Kong studied her A-levels at Kolej Tuanku Ja’afar under a school scholarship. She is currently reading Chemistry at Oxford University and would like to be a philanthropist, but needs to acquire the means to do so first.

Note: The above entry was written in 2010 for What’s After SPM?, published in 2011. This non-for-profit book project is a collaboration between Leaderonomics and a team of young Malaysians. Click here for details on the project and authors.

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