OnBoard+ Program bridges gap for remote students: A talk with the founder of the remote learning center program, board of trustee, Mr. Max Zhang ‘09


Photo Courtesy of Max Zhang ‘09

Navigate Left
Navigate Right
  • Photo Courtesy of Max Zhang ‘09

  • Shanghai OnBoard+ program afternoon sports. Photo Courtesy of Shanghai OnBoard+ Program

  • The Shanghai OnBoard+ Program remote learning center. Photo By Jason Zhou ‘23

  • Mount Mogan organic farm field trip. Photo Courtesy of Shanghai OnBoard+ Program Shanghai

Navigate Left
Navigate Right

While most Hill students began their campus life under special circumstances, many international students had to navigate online learning back home. How did remote students prepare for and progress through the upcoming school year? In China, students from Hill and other boarding schools gathered together through the OnBoard+ Program and began the school year away from their respective campuses, but together. The OnBoard+ Program was a remote learning center program for students who could not return to their U.S. high schools in the early fall due to COVID-19 complications and travel restrictions. This center had locations in Beijing and Shanghai and consisted of eight major US high schools including: The Hill School, Tabor Academy, Mercersburg Academy, The Hun School of Princeton, Blair Academy, Cushing Academy, Episcopal High School in Virginia and St. Andrew’s School in Delaware. Every center was equipped with a stable internet connection, current college student counselors, and a comfortable study environment. 

Hill News Staff Writer Jason Zhou ’23 enrolled in the OnBoard+ Program in Shanghai as a remote student. He chatted with Max Zhang ‘09, the founder of the program and a member of the Board of Trustees, to provide more insight to the Hill community and to record this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

“The core value, the purpose, is really for you guys to have a reliable place with a rather reliable group of people, and to have a daily routine. I think a good daily routine is important for a student’s mental health”. — Max Zhang ‘09

When asked about how the program initially launched, Zhang said that he received an email in early July from Headmaster Zack Lehman. The title of the email was “a crazy but maybe brilliant idea.” Zhang is the center manager of Shanghai of the Shang NancyFriends International Education Group, so he had the classroom facilities and resources in Shanghai and Beijing to bring the idea of local learning centers to fruition. He soon formalized the initial plan as well as activities and routines. Then, Lehman shared that plan with other boarding schools in the

Mid-Atlantic Prep League and beyond. In the end, the program had a total number of 8 schools all “on board.”

Zhang also explained that the name OnBoard+ Program represented the onboarding experiences for boarding schools, especially for freshmen who have not seen their campus yet. The “+” represented the various activities and personal gains from the whole program.

Through the course of time, Zhang has shifted his thoughts on the purpose of the OnBoard+ Program. In the beginning, he thought that the planned enrichment programs such as the speaker invited every Friday would be the most valuable experiences for students and the most essential core value for the program. However, months later, having interacted with the students, he emphasized the value of a daily routine.  

“The core value, the purpose, is really for you guys to have a reliable place with a rather reliable group of people, and to have a daily routine. I think a good daily routine is important for a student’s mental health,” Zhang said.

Zhang also encountered challenges when he was trying to make the OnBoard+ Program more concrete. 

“The challenge for me is to figure out what you guys want,” he said. For example, “the speakers I invite might be all successful, but may not be someone you want to listen to.” To counter this problem, Zhang introduced college student counselors to the program. 

“Who wants to listen to someone who’s old?” Zhang said, so he recruited top college students to help out in the program. “They will be able to understand you guys better, and I think that’s the most important piece because they [are] directly shaping your experiences everyday”.

The Shanghai OnBoard+ Program organized a field trip to Mount Mogan on the weekend to relax in organic farms, and students also spent time with an inspiring figure, Chenyu Zheng, or Sister Apple, who travelled the world living with her AirBnB host and is now a writer, speaker and artist. 

While it is unfortunate that students cannot return to their schools, Zhang thinks that the new generation needs to face more challenges like these in order to cope with harder difficulties later in life. 

“When do you have the opportunities to face challenges? You can’t; it’s so hard.” Zhang said that being overprotective is a common mistake in the modern world. He wished that through the course of the program, students will be more prepared and more willing to step out of their comfort zones after they return to their schools.

“The OnBoard program means a lot for me in this special period of time. It means friends on the poker table and lacrosse field. It means the experiences from seniors to “survive” in my high school career. It also means fun, awkwardness, warm, and lovely moments that I will remember for a long long time,” said Tabor Academy Richard Ye ’24.  “The OnBoard+ program brought order and energy into remote students’ lives, and the students are taking full advantage to spend their semester successfully under the pandemic.”