OnBoard+: Bringing the Mercersburg Classroom to China

Thursday, September 24, 2020
At the Great Wall of China (clockwise from center: Coco Zhai ’24, Emily Tan ’24,
Sam Zhao ’24, Steven Yang ’23, Jordan Yuan ’24, Ruby Shang ’24

At the start of this Mercersburg academic year that sports a most unusual look and feel, 81 of the school’s 446 enrolled students are studying virtually during the fall term. Approximately three-quarters of those students are from overseas, where travel, visa, and other restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic have made it problematic (or in some cases, impossible) for them to travel to the United States this fall.
 
But thanks to a new initiative, Mercersburg has essentially traveled to them.
 
Seven of the school’s 22 students who are studying virtually from China are spending the fall term at co-working spaces in Beijing and Shanghai dubbed OnBoard+. Mercersburg has partnered with the Chinese-based educational consulting company Shang NancyFriends and seven other Mid-Atlantic and New England boarding schools to establish the spaces, which are similar to an office environment and equipped with comfortable study areas and state-of-the-art technology where students can take part in the school’s Virtual ’Burg online classes.
 
The spaces are staffed by dedicated tutors and educators who can provide assistance to students as needed on their class projects and writing assignments, as well as other support. Community-building activities for the students are also on the schedule, including an educational trip already taken by students from the five schools to the Great Wall of China.
 
“We’re happy that our Chinese students have this opportunity to study and work together, and we’re glad we can help provide this as an option for our students who are not able to join us on campus for the fall term,” says Anna Crouch, Mercersburg’s director of admission. “There are probably many students both overseas and inside the U.S. who would love to have an opportunity like this while studying virtually through their public or private schools.”
 
Ten Mercersburg faculty members are teaching exclusively online this fall, with students in their classes joining them virtually from their homes across the globe. (Another 14 Mercersburg faculty are teaching “blended” classes that combine a number of in-person students with virtual students watching video directly from the Mercersburg classroom. All classrooms on campus have been equipped with cameras to record the teacher during class sessions.)
 
Start times are arranged to give virtual students the maximum amount of flexibility to attend classes, even with time zone differences. (Most of China is 12 hours ahead of U.S. Eastern time, where Mercersburg is located, although Academy students are taking virtual classes from quite literally around the world, including South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Hong Kong, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Ghana, and the United Kingdom, as well as off-campus locations inside the U.S.).
 

Students with a tutor in the OnBoard+ space in Beijing

The OnBoard+ centers allow the Mercersburg students to develop friendships and relationships among their Mercersburg group and with other students enrolled at the other American boarding schools taking part in the program: Blair Academy (Blairstown, NJ), Cushing Academy (Ashburnham, MA), Episcopal High School (Alexandria, VA), The Hill School (Pottstown, PA), The Hun School of Princeton (NJ), St. Andrew’s School (Middletown, DE), and Tabor Academy (Marion, MA). OnBoard+ founders Nini Suet and Max Zhang are both graduates of American boarding schools.
 
All six of the Mercersburg students working from the Beijing campus (Ruby Shang ’24, Emily Tan ’24, Steven Yang ’23, Jordan Yuan ’24, Coco Zhai ’24, and Sam Zhao ’24) are new to the student body this year. Returning student Serena Zhang ’22 is studying from the Shanghai campus.

“The OnBoard+ program is a very good way to connect all the students together,” Tan says. “It is easy and convenient for those of us in our first year at Mercersburg to communicate and help each other on assignments and courses. I am really enjoying the space, which provides us a sense of community, because we can study in an environment where everyone is working hard.”

“We can feel the care and love Mercersburg is showing its international students during this very difficult and unprecedented time,” says Yilei Zhang, who is Ruby Shang’s mother. “Everything is going well here in Beijing, and the kids are fascinated by their teachers and classes. They are gradually fitting into Mercersburg life step by step. More importantly, they want to be independent and are eager to be on their own. It is great to see their growth!”
 
All Mercersburg students (those living on campus as well as day students and those studying virtually) started the fall term with virtual classes September 14. Following the second round of on-campus COVID-19 testing (which yielded zero positive cases among boarding and day students), in-person classes began September 18. The fall term runs through Friday, November 13, with the new four-week Mercersburg Intensive scheduled for Monday, November 16, through Wednesday, December 16.