Student Retreats: An Opportunity to Set a College Culture of Openness

Our year at Make School begins with a retreat to Marin County, California. Our new cohort of students arrives at our San Francisco campus the day before, flying in from all around the world. We hop upon a bus and drive across the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. The group is transported from the bustling city filled with LED billboards and cars honking down careening bends to the campsite’s lush green hills that roll into the Pacific Ocean.

The day is spent hiking across ocean cliffs. The afternoon is spent sharing hopes for our careers and future.

At night, we convene around a campfire. With the sun setting into a burnt orange haze, everybody is given a small index card and pen. They are instructed to write down what fear has held them back in the past. They tentatively begin, eyes darting for social cues to see if others actually follow through. They are then asked to quietly share that fear with the person sitting next to them.

I rise from the crowd and explain how this moment will be a turning point in their life. College is a time to start fresh, a time to define a new beginning and decide who they want to be in this next phase of life. I then share my fear (and to this day, still can’t share it without looking down in embarrassment): “falling back into a deep depression”. I tell the story of starting my first company, the ceaseless nights of burnout and days spent feeling the utter lack of self-worth as I witnessed my business burning towards bankruptcy. I pause, worry jostling my unsteady legs. Stop. Then throw my index card into the fire. “This year, I am not going to let that fear hold me back,” I say, half convincingly, fully vulnerable.

What happens next never ceases to amaze me. One by one, the students go around, share their fear with the group, and throw their card into the fire. With each story, each honest truth of pain, you begin to see peoples’ guard go down. Their eyes relax. Their bodies bend in naturally towards each other.

Every year, I can’t count the number of times I hear students say “I’ve never told this to anyone before,” or, “this is really hard to say but …” Students have shared unresolved traumas, debilitating diseases they’ve kept in secret, the biggest conflicts they face in life. People weep.

What’s even more shocking is how this experience affects the culture of the student body for the remainder of the school year. We have barely any student conflicts; students easily open up to discuss their problems with instructors and coaches. It’s as if everyone has seen each other at their worst, and now, rooted in a humbling empathy that binds us all, can care to help everyone be their best.

The retreat ends the next morning with students writing a letter to their future selves. They take a long time on this note and then seal it in a manila envelope along with a Polaroid headshot we take. No one on staff sees his or her message. We collect the envelopes.

The school year begins. Projects are completed. Some not. Parties happen. People break up, get together. Guest speakers, field trips, spring break, loads of laughs, inside jokes, and other things happen that that are only spots of memories on the rich complex canvas that is college.

Just today, I stopped a student named James who had to leave early before our graduation next week. I pulled him aside and recalled the moment we all came together that fateful night in Marin, unsure of what the school year and community would hold. I ask him to think about who he was then. Who he is now.

From behind my back, I pulled out the envelope. He opened it. Slowly I saw tears well up in his eyes as a year of experience and growth hits him all at once. The letter is a gift, to himself, of understanding what he has become.

Many people believe that college is a place to learn. I believe it is a place where we can discover the deep humanness that makes life worth living. For it is the community of people around us who shape us most. And it is by shaping that community to be one of vulnerable, honest love, where the dirtiest soot can become a beautiful pearl.

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