Much of what we seek from high school and college is a tribe: a close community of friends who share our interests and values. But is school the best place to find a tribe? If not school, then where else?
My friend Alex, from Scotland, is currently traveling the world. A couple weeks ago she blogged about meeting up with one of our mutual friends—Emma—in New Zealand. “I wonder what my life would be like,” Alex mused, “if I hadn’t worked at Camp!”
The “Camp” she’s talking about is Deer Crossing Camp, a children’s wilderness summer camp in the California High Sierra mountains. That’s where Alex, Emma, and I met by working together in 2009.
A huge number of my own close friendships have come from camps like Deer Crossing Camp, Not Back to School Camp, and the outdoor and unschooling communities into which they networked me. I began joining these communities during and after college.
A smaller (but significant) number of my close friends came from UC Berkeley. But they overwhelmingly came from the student cooperative houses in which I lived for four years, not through my college classes or extracurriculars.
And, were I mangled in a terrible industrial accident, I could still count the number of close friends that I kept from my high school and hometown of Bakersfield, California.
You can’t rely upon the accident of geography to provide you with a tribe. If you want to surround yourself with an interesting and supportive community, you’ve got to craft it yourself.
How to do this? It starts by being genuinely curious or interested in something—anything. That means being a nerd. If you’re not a little bit nerdy, then you’re doing something wrong.
Then you find the self-selected communities that center around those interests. Some will work out, others won’t. When I lived out of my car while working for the outdoor education company Naturalists at Large and backpacked 300 continuous miles on the Pacific Crest Trail, I discovered that I actually wasn’t interested in being a total outdoor dirt-bagger. When I visited and volunteered for multiple Sudbury-model free schools, I met lots of nice people but ultimately moved onto unschooling.
If you’re academically inclined, college is a good places to meet other people who care about ideas, think deeply, and generally possess big ambitions. There’s a certain level of self-selection that takes place simply by moving to a big city or college town. But living in a dorm won’t automatically provide you with deep, long-term friendships. Again, you’ve got to find the groups that share your interests and values, as my (camp) friend Julie McPherson did at UC Davis. She joined the Outdoor Adventures club, started leading trips, and eventually became a top-level administrator. Now many of Julie’s closest friends are from OA.
The great thing about campus clubs and associations, of course, is that you can often join or participate without being an officially enrolled student. There’s a lot of power in simply showing up (to the door of Outdoor Adventures, for example) being enthusiastic, and offering to help.
There’s also a lot of potential for independent community houses, modeled after the Berkeley Student Co-ops, to start up and offer membership regardless of educational status. What so many college-bound young people seek is the chance to build a meaningful community—a tribe. If someone started such a house and effectively decoupled the community-building aspect of college from the expensive infrastructure, classes, professors, etc., I suspect that they would be swarmed by applicants (and quickly profitable).
To start building your tribe, go find the people who do what you like to do. Work with them, volunteer for them, and play with them. Don’t wait for school to give you a tribe—it won’t.