Philip Tsuei was just 12 years old when his parents sent him 7,000 miles from home to attend middle school in the hills of western Massachusetts.
"It was pure dread," said Tsuei, now 23. "It was like I was sentenced to death. I just counted down the days."
Still, he knew it was his "duty" to study at all-boys Eaglebrook School in Deerfield. His brother also matriculated there as part of what Tsuei, who hails from Taiwan, described as the first step in preparing for the college-admissions sweepstakes.
Wealthy Asian families have long viewed US universities as a golden ticket to help ensure their children's futures, but a growing number are looking to get an early edge on the competition. More and more families, increasingly from China, are sending their kids across the Pacific to attend "junior" boarding schools. While few in number, these exclusive middle schools -- which can charge as much as $74,000 a year -- offer a potential route into top private high schools that feed the most prestigious universities.
"It's only natural that the next step was for those families to look at the junior boarding schools, because they felt like it would give them an upper hand," said Rick Dickson, managing partner at Dunbar Consultants, a New York-based educational consulting firm.
The size of this niche market is hard to quantify. At the Fay School, the number of foreign applicants for the upper boarding school (grades 7 through 9) has grown steadily in recent years, according to data provided by the Southborough, Massachusetts-based institution, while American applicants have remained relatively flat. The same "exponential growth" has been seen at Deerfield's Bement School, according to Head of School Chris Wilson. Eaglebrook, meanwhile, has seen such an influx from China that it established a program to assess English language proficiency and filter Chinese applicants, said Admissions Director Christopher Loftus, who declined to give specific numbers.
John Rao, now 21, was among the pioneers. China's rigid, examination-based education system wasn't the right fit for Rao when he was 13, so his father, who ran a tech company, looked into him studying abroad. A decade ago, it was rare for families to send their kids halfway around the world so young. But for Rao, attending Hillside School in Marlborough, Massachusetts, seemed too good an opportunity to pass up.
In his local school in Shenzhen, "my grades were fine, but I couldn't see myself doing a lot of things I liked to do," said Rao, who went on to enroll at Westminster School in Simsbury, Connecticut, and now attends Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
East Asian students make up the majority of international secondary students, but the growth is driven primarily by China and South Korea. In 2018, despite slowing growth, Chinese students made up 37% of all international secondary students in the US, according to a presentation from the Institute of International Education.
Tsuei's alma mater boasts an endowment of $100 million, according to website Boarding School Review, and an 800-acre campus that includes its own ski slope. Other schools, such as Fay, Bement and Rumsey Hall, also have eight-digit endowments and bucolic campuses that rival those of some universities. Fay, the oldest junior boarding school in the U.S., has 10 fields, eight tennis courts, four basketball courts, two outdoor heated pools, two fitness centers, an indoor turf facility and an indoor rock climbing wall, according to its website.
But one of the main draws is the relationships they have with some of the most competitive private high schools, Dunbar Consultants' Dickson said. Many graduates go on to attend such schools as Phillips Academy Andover, Phillips Exeter Academy, Choate Rosemary Hall and Deerfield Academy.
"We all knew, implicitly," said Tsuei, who later attended Loomis Chaffee School in Windsor, Connecticut, and New York University. "Almost the first thing we hear is: 'Which high school do you want to go to?'"
At Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan, New Hampshire, about 80 private secondary schools send representatives to meet with prospective students each fall. High school admissions directors often visit personally, sometimes dining with ninth graders to chat informally about their plans, according to the Bement School.
"After attending junior boarding school in America, many students go on to enroll in some of the most competitive secondary schools in the world," according to the Fay School's website. "In turn, these top high schools are considered 'feeder' schools for Ivy League colleges such as Harvard, Princeton and Yale."
Beyond country-club amenities and academic connections, such schools also offer foreign students the opportunity to learn in more flexible environments than many of their home countries, while also getting an early acclimation to US culture. That can range from something as subtle as understanding references to "The Simpsons" to gearing up in preppy Vineyard Vines fashions.
Many of Rao and Tsuei's classmates were sons of high-ranking executives at global conglomerates, they said, and stories about lavish vacations and private jets highlighted the wealth at Eaglebrook. Parents who send their children to junior boarding schools are often successful entrepreneurs who were also educated abroad and understood the value of having a US diploma, said Yuan-Hsiu Lien, who teaches Chinese at Eaglebrook.
"In many ways, you're in this small pond with big fish," Tsuei said. "But not because the pond is relatively small, it's because they're actually big."
But leaving one's family so young can be challenging. For the longest time, Tsuei said he yearned to go home.
"Sometimes I would feel like, 'Why do people like us, people like smart kids from Taiwan or other parts of Asia, need to come here in order to feel like they could get a better chance in life?' " Tsuei said. "Isn't it enough to stay in Asia?"
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