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Stories from UOW

Finding your tribe can be as simple as joining a club or society

How finding your tribe is much deeper than playing tennis, dressing up in costumes or discussing books over glasses of fine wine.

It is said that one of the greatest factors in the success of our species is our ability to harness the power of collectiveness – the power of finding your tribe. Yes, our advanced brains have a lot to do with our privileged position at the top of the food chain. But when it comes to power, none of us can compete one-on-one with the brute force of the greatest predators on earth. We can even be cut down by the smallest of spiders and even plants.

What sets us apart is that we organise ourselves into groups, communities. But unlike, say, ants, the benefits of our ability to work together as a species is greatly enhanced by our large advanced brains. Put simply, what we can achieve as a group is truly amazing. However, it’s more complex than that.

Wanting to identify with a tribe arguably is still a very important basic part of what it is to be human.

Professor Chris Gibson

Part of that success is dependent on individuals thriving, and part of that involves our fundamental need to be part of something bigger than ourselves. We crave the emotional, psychological and physical benefits that being part of a tribe or group provide. Without that feeling of belonging, we can quite simply fail to thrive.

The variety of clans, tribes or whatever you want to call them are endless. And according to experts, the importance of finding your tribe shouldn’t be underestimated. These groups can provide a sense of purpose, a reason to interact with others and even proven health and wellbeing benefits. This can be especially true in a tertiary education environment.

The University of Wollongong (UOW) has a diverse range of more than 125 student-run clubs and societies, including academic, charity, cultural, professional development, political, religious/faith-based recreational and special interest. The benefits of being a member of these groups – or any tribe – and finding commonality with others should not be underestimated.

Tribalisation: a perennial feature of all human societies

Professor of Human Geography Chris Gibson is Director of UOW’s Global Challenges program. His background involves the exploration of sub-cultures, the way they’re connected to places and how they are a characteristic of society.

He says it’s a constant throughout human history to tribalise societies because that’s what gives us identity and meaning. It’s a perennial feature of all human societies to want to belong and to create a sense of us and them.

“Wanting to identify with a tribe is arguably still a very important basic part of what it is to be human. Within a university setting, clubs are an important way for students to foster a sense of belonging and help them to find their tribe.”

They’re an important way for students to feel a sense of belonging within the university community and to discover themselves, even if it is a really arcane or specialist area of interest.

Professor Chris Gibson

Going to university can be an isolating experience, despite being surrounded by people. Clubs add an intangible but vital element of richness and diversity to the cultural life that surrounds being a student – it’s not just the educational attainment.

“Our clubs are a reflection of the diversity of the student body and they’re more than just a frivolous side activity,” Professor Gibson says. “They’re an important way for students to feel a sense of belonging within the university community and to discover themselves, even if it is a really arcane or specialist area of interest.”

Professor Gibson has researched what are known in cultural studies and theory as neo-tribes. These neo-tribes are an affiliation or connection to some aspect of popular culture, or a leisure pastime or pursuit, such as UOW’s Harry Potter Society, Metalheads, Anime and Manga, and Medieval Society. Dr Gibson says neo-tribes are very particular community.

“Those communities can become quite specialised and actually develop their own sub-cultural language, terms, phrases or rules. They can become all-encompassing and deeply meaningful and increasingly, they’re really specialised.”

Validating our sense of self

UOW School of Psychology Lecturer Dr Peter Leeson agrees. He says there are a variety of reasons human beings seek out like-minded people. One classic theory is being around people with similar beliefs to our own provides us with validation.

“There’s another theory called social identity theory, which suggests that part of how we identify ourselves is via the groups to which we belong. We seek out people because it’s essential to our view of who we are and confirms our sense of self,” Dr Leeson says.

Medieval Society: more than costumes and sword-play

One special-interest club is the Medieval Society (College of St. Mallachy). Adele Beck is a UOW PhD candidate studying linguistics. She is Seneschal (president) of the club and says connecting with people who share her “brand of weird” makes her feel like she’s got a network of people who understand her.

Before moving to Australia from the United States, Adele contacted the Illawarra Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA). She was amazed by their response. They helped her find somewhere to live and provided camping equipment for her first few SCA events until she got her own. When Adele had a serious health issue, club members rallied again.

Adele Beck stands in full costume with another member of the Medieval Society at UOW, as she discusses the support benefits of finding your tribe.

Adele Beck says of the Medieval Society, “It’s the most wonderful community I’ve ever been part of.” Photo: Paul Jones

“One of my SCA friends knew about it and turned up with ready-made dinners for the first three nights and another took me out Pokémon hunting to help me keep active, and so I wasn’t over over-analysing the situation. Another club member talked to me about his health struggles and gave me excellent advice on managing chronic illness. It’s the most wonderful community I’ve ever been part of.”

Adele is working on her PhD and has lectured at four universities in three countries. She always tells her students one of the most important things they can do for their futures while at university is to join a club.

“Looking back at my undergraduate degree, the thing that has made the most difference has been my involvement in clubs and societies. I would encourage everyone to find their tribe.”

Wellbeing: a complex mix of factors

It is positive relationships like this that are widely acknowledged by health and social experts as having an enormous influence on our overall wellbeing. Mental health is a significant component of this. The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines positive mental health as a ‘state of wellbeing in which individuals realise their potential, cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively and fruitfully, and make a contribution to her or his community’.

This is in line with the Black Dog Institute’s view that wellbeing is a complex mix of contributing factors. The Institute’s research shows that cultivating meaningful relationships, and the deep satisfaction we find in social connections, boosts and maintains mental resilience and protects us from feelings of hopelessness and depression.

In the case of university students, loneliness and difficulty making social connections can have a detrimental effect on their health and studies. This can happen for a variety of reasons. For some, it’s simply the transition from high school that’s difficult. Moving long distances from home and family can compound the transition, especially in the case of international students.

It gives me a sense of unity and belonging, a sense of comfort in who I am.

Nadine Elix

These factors can lead to decline in student health, a view supported by Dr Leeson. “There’s a whole range of research that suggests that if we have peers that support us, who we feel we can turn to, and who share our values and beliefs, then that is related to better health, lower levels of anxiety and stress,” he says.

“One thing we know quite emphatically in psychology and health in general is that there is no disconnect between our sense of how we think and feel and our body. It’s all one and the same thing.” So, the body and mind aren’t disconnected.

Dr Lesson says there is also research that looks at rare instances where people who have been brought up in real isolation often exhibit a whole range of symptoms similar to psychological disorders. “There’s an element there where it is really essential for our sense of sanity almost to have other people around us,” he says.

Metalheads: music and mateship

Nadine Elix is studying her second year of French, and Writing and English Literatures at UOW and is a member of the University’s Metalheads club. She says the club provided an escape from loneliness after moving to Wollongong last year. Despite living in university accommodation, she was “very lonely” and didn’t find her niche until the society was formed.

“It gives me a sense of unity and belonging, a sense of comfort in who I am,” Nadine explains.

Nadine Elix has found her tribe in the UOW Metalheads club.

A passion for music drew Nadine to join the UOW Metalheads club. Photo: Paul Jones

Describing music as a major part of her life – she plays French horn and flute – Nadine says there are so many like-minded people at university that she would never have known existed without the club. “With each meet-up, the group loses more and more awkwardness and friendships bloom.”

Metalheads is also an antidote to stress, with Nadine saying that she can easily lose balance in her life. “I can get very easily stressed out. Being a part of this society means that there is at least one thing a week to get me out of the house. Above all, we are a social and wellbeing society.”

Harry Potter’s magic is real

UOW Harry Potter Society President Laura Koschnick can identify with the research about the link between finding your tribe and wellbeing. She had almost given up on studying due to mental health issues last year and says the only reason she came back was because the club was in danger of folding.

“To be completely honest, I had all but dropped out. I had almost given in to my anxiety and depression but I didn’t want to give up on this society so I came back to uni,” she says. “Becoming part of this society has helped me find my place at uni. I now walk around and recognise every second face, whether through club networking or a fellow club member… uni is now associated with enjoyable events and socialising, instead of just studying.”

Laura Koschnick is President of the UOW Harry Potter Society

Laura Koschnick has gained huge benefits from finding her tribe in the UOW Harry Potter Society. Photo: Paul Jones

Anime’s creative culture of support

Adriana says that being a member of UOW’s Anime and Manga Club has been an important part of her university experience. “I’d imagine it would have been a lonely four years without this club. The friends you make become a form of support, so you don’t end up feeling too isolated and alone. I never really made friends with my cohort so having another group of people to hang out with has really helped me.”

She describes that moment, the realisation that she wouldn’t want to be doing anything else other than being with those people. “It’s a very happy realisation to have, and I’m glad I have these people to share our common interests with. It’s really nice to be able to meet people with such a niche interest and discuss the things you’re passionate about with other people, face to face.”

She says not only had the club allowed her to meet with other people, but it also helped her develop some organisational skills she doubted she would have gained otherwise.

Self-worth and social support

Dr Leeson says UOW’s clubs are tremendously valuable, irrespective of their interest or focus. “The other element is that the more niche groups do offer a sense of shared identity… If you have interests that maybe aren’t shared widely, then you can feel like those interests are valid and that you’re okay. It can really have a big impact on your sense of worth. And that can therefore have an impact on physical health.”

People who feel they’ve got good social support generally are going to be far better off, not just psychologically but in their physical health and wellbeing. You can be among people and still feel isolated, but if you have people to turn to, people who have your back and will provide support, you will be much better off.

For more information about UOW’s clubs and societies, visit clubs.uow.edu.au

If you need assistance, UOW has a variety of specialised counselling and support services, visit uow.edu.au/student/counselling

For 24/7 emergency mental health support, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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