New View EDU Episode 60: Student Voices on Learning Self-Reliance

Available May 14, 2024

Find New View EDU on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and many other podcast apps.

Most schools envision helping students grow in their agency, independence, and self-reliance. How to do that is a hotly debated topic with no easy answers. But while most students are trying to build those skills in settings that are also grappling with issues like technology use and the difficulties of providing meaningful opportunities outside the classroom, there are some schools where learning self-reliance happens in a wholly different way. Two students from Midland School in California join New View EDU to share their experiences with a no-tech, nature-based campus where growing your own food and heating your own living quarters are just part of a normal school day.

Midland School studentsAyanna Hopkins-Zelada, left, and River Peace, two Midland School students, talk with host Tim Fish about the challenges and rewards of their unconventional education. They share how they were each drawn to Midland, a boarding school on 2,800 acres that was founded during the Depression Era on the principle of “needs over wants.” While life at Midland includes conditions many students might consider spartan—minimalist cabins heated by wood stoves, outdoor bathrooms, limited internet availability, and a ban on cellphones—Ayanna and River say the perks far outweigh the downsides.

Contrasting life at home with life at Midland, River shares that the lack of technology and the robust campus jobs program have helped him make real, lasting connections that go beyond the social media-fueled interactions of his peers outside Midland’s campus. As the teens talk about the jobs program, which assigns students responsibilities for every aspect of campus life, including animal care, farming, cleaning, chopping wood, and more, River observes that he feels he learns more about who people really are when they’re caring for others, not just themselves.

Ayanna agrees that while the conditions at Midland might be viewed as “harsh” by some, the challenges of campus life are actually their own reward. She speaks about the freedom Midland students have to explore the property and take camping or hiking trips without adult supervision, and how learning to be accountable for oneself and others to stay safe during those kinds of experiences has been formative for her. Ayanna says the expectations of self-reliance, hard work, and care for others have helped her gain crucial conflict resolution and communication skills with both peers and adults.

Both students say the atmosphere of trust and the close relationships they’re able to build with faculty have helped instill confidence and leadership skills beyond what they might have gained in traditional school environments. Observing that the lifestyle can be difficult, they share that the school ethos of pushing beyond your own limitations is one that inspires a passionate sense of belonging. They understand themselves as part of an enduring legacy, a nearly century-old community of students who have persevered through the unique expectations and opportunities of a Midland education to learn what they’re truly capable of.

Asked whether it would be possible to replicate some of Midland’s approach in a very different school setting, Ayanna and River agree that self-reliance and care for the community can be taught in a variety of environments. They encourage school leaders to think about expanding learning opportunities outside the walls of a traditional classroom; to build a sense of community that includes responsibility to others; to focus on deep relationship building, not just among students but with faculty as well; and to provide ample challenge along with the trust and support students need to triumph over struggle. 

Key Questions

Some of the key questions Tim, Ayanna, and River explore in this episode include:

  • How does a setting like Midland help develop deep relationships and a sense of belonging very quickly? 
  • What is it like to have a jobs program that might have students shoveling animal manure, cleaning toilets, or picking vegetables to feed their classmates? How does that change the school experience?
  • In a world so fueled by technology, what benefits are there to a setting like Midland where no one has a phone and there’s only limited internet access for a small portion of the day?
  • How has the struggle inherent in living according to the Midland philosophy contributed to student success both at the school and beyond?

Episode Highlights

  • “I think that everyone is taking care of each other and you get to decide what the environment you live in looks like. And you really get to know what a person, who that person truly is when you see how they take care of the people around them. And there's that deeper level of connection. I find myself—not achieving, I'm not sure how to word that—but that deeper level of connection with someone when you see who they truly are when they're taking care of, not only themselves, but the people around them.” (8:41)
  • “And my ability to navigate conflict with my peers and also with faculty, or with other peers and faculty in whatever situation, has been really solidified because Midland, from your freshman year, is very intentional about making sure that you develop the skills to maintain relationships with people and how to navigate all aspects of having a relationship with someone or a group of people, and maintaining the responsibilities that you have as an individual in a community. Which also extends to your ability to know when to ask for help and know when you are overworked or need a minute and to be able to advocate for yourself.” (18:06)
  • “Something that I notice the most at Midland is historical passion. Since Midland was founded, everyone that's gone to Midland and worked at Midland has had passion for it and cared about the place that they are stepping foot on. So having that passion from the very first construction of the place, of the school, I think that's key to having somewhere as magical as Midland.” (23:23)
  • “I think it's one of the most special things about how students and faculty interact at Midland, is that you have a relationship in and out of the classroom. Our faculty know you very well outside of the classroom, and that translates really well into them becoming a teacher for you academically and not, outside of the classroom. And I think it's an advantage that Midland students have that a lot of other students don't have, where our teachers are able to see us as whole people outside of the classroom rather than just students in a classroom.” (34:58)

Resource List

Full Transcript

  • Read the full transcript here.

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About Our Guests

About Midland School

Founded in 1932 in the midst of the Great Depression, Midland has always been an “alternative to the regular thing.” Its founding mission and values have guided it through economic recessions, world wars, cultural shifts, and, most recently, a global pandemic. Its focus remains steady: to provide a rustic college preparatory education to students of all backgrounds, to create lifelong thinkers and learners, and to teach students to live simply and connect deeply with the natural world. Across Midland’s nine decades, much has changed. Every so often, the community reevaluates its shared values and mission to ensure they remain reflective of the school and community it desires to be. Today, these beliefs remain the strong foundation beneath the school’s academic and residential program.

About Ayanna Hopkins-Zelada

The 2,800 acres of wilderness, emphasis on intentional community, and lack of technology drew Ayanna to Midland her freshman year. Since then she has been heavily involved in the school's outdoor program, the 10-acre farm, and the working ranch, which is home to several herds of horses and cattle. As a four-year senior and one of two head prefects, she currently works on the farm and ranch crews as part of the jobs program. She can typically be found backpacking, playing cello, reading, or taking her dog out on property to explore. Ayanna's favorite class this semester, geology, has led her to follow her adventurous nature and love for wilderness to pursue volcanology beyond high school. 

About River Peace

River is a second-year student at Midland who enjoys drawing, surfing, and hiking in his free time. He decided to attend Midland to have immediate access to the outdoors and live in a close-knit community. River's favorite class is the farm internship because they learn how to grow and care for their own crops. River is also on the farm crew, which picks those crops and delivers them to the school's kitchen. River plans on going into a college revolving around the arts and/or agriculture.