Gila Cliff Dwellers

Last week I visited the Gila Cliff Dwellings, a National Monument in New Mexico. The cliff dwellings consist of a series of seven large caves which were inhabited by a small tribe of indigenous people about 700 years ago. The caves are remarkable for the number of walls, built of rock, mortar, and timber, that the tribe built to divide the caves into about forty rooms. Many of the rooms were accessible only by ladder, and many of the walls are still standing today.

The other remarkable aspect of these dwellings is that the tribe who built the walls only lived in the caves for about thirty years. There is no definite answer as to why they moved on after spending an enormous amount of time and energy building their cave homes, but the best guess is that they were unable to hunt, gather, and grow enough food to sustain the life of the tribe in the location they’d chosen.

The reason I’m writing about this topic is to reinforce the idea of planning for the future. In my experience, many students choose their college majors based on what is most interesting to them—and that’s fine! But while you’re in college, you also have to plan for a way to sustain yourself after you’ve finished college.

The Gila cliff dwellers had thought of almost everything: how to enhance a natural shelter to protect themselves from the predators and the elements, how to store food in specially built rooms, how to raise a family safely in a somewhat hostile environment, and even how to grow some crops in an arid location. However, they apparently neglected to ensure that their chosen site could provide sufficient food sources to sustain their tribe.

In the same way, students can attend college, build their skills, participate in extracurricular activities, and graduate with a great GPA without having covered all their bases, missing out on appropriate internships, networking opportunities, or sufficient research into the viability of careers for students in a particular major. Falling short in these critical ways can be the difference between post-graduate success and the failure to obtain a satisfying career.

Don’t end up like the Gila cliff dwellers, who produced a housing structure that would last for centuries, but did not recognize that the environment was insufficient to meet their most basic needs. By the way, no one knows where the cliff dwellers went after they left the caves. The pottery they left behind tells archaeologists where they came from, but their history after leaving the caves has been lost.