How to build a world-class community in 10 days

Cassia Attard
7 min readJun 5, 2024


This morning I left NYC for a 3-month internship in Bangkok. I cried in JFK. Not because I was scared to go to Asia, but because my short trip to New York was behind me.

Before my move to Thailand, I was at a 10-day retreat in New York with the Cansbridge Fellowship, the organization sponsoring me and 14 other Canadian university students to do a summer internship in Asia. We spent 6 days at a summer camp bonding and high-ropesing, and 4 days in Manhattan, surrounded by alumni and attending workshops on topics from romantic relationships to Brazillian jiu-jitsu. These 10 days left me feeling rewired, unearthed, and part of a new family.

As someone who took a gap year to build Community for an education startup, I know that community-building is unintutive and complex. It takes intention, time, and passion. I believe Cansbridge has built a world-class community, and their annual retreat taught me how to build strong bonds in a short time (I learned, for example, that if you deprive people people of sleep and alone time, you will see their true colours).

Here is what I learned about building an incomprehensible sense of community in a short time-frame.

Be exclusive before being inclusive

It is clear to me that great communities are built on a set of specific shared values. The more outliers, the weaker the community. Everyone belongs somewhere, but not everywhere. You must find the people who specifically belong.

Given this, you can’t walk into a world-class community. At risk of making it sound toxic, the Cansbridge Fellowship is exclusive. Applicants are filtered for values such as persistence, curiosity, and ambition. This year’s acceptance rate was 1.5%. This builds community for several important reasons:

  1. Imagine if all social interactions began with the assumption that you’re going to get along. When community members are selected for shared values, everyone operates on the assumption of liking each other. That’s a unique circumstance that fosters positive, enthusiastic, and welcoming energy.
  2. Cansbridge does not select based on accomplishment, they select based on character. The #1 Cansbridge interview criteria is “Did I want to keep talking to this person?”. This created a cohort of people who are interesting, humble, funny, and fun. Being exclusive on these criteria designs a community with these values.
The Cansbridge ’24 cohort with the Founder of Etsy, Rob Kalin

Stage 2: Be inclusive

I don’t beleive that exclusive and inclusive are — for lack of a less confusing term–mutually exclusive.

The conference welcomed over 100 fellows in NYC. There were also an additional ~20 people who were not Cansbrige fellows, but friends, siblings, co-workers, or partners of fellows who attended the entire conference. They were welcome at every activity, featured in all group photos, and included in all discussions. People who matched the Cansbridge values were always welcome, whether they were formally selected or not.

Strong communities filter carefully, but not restrictively. No rule book dictates whether or not someone is welcome. Their resume could not tell you if they belong. If one Cansbridge fellow welcomes them, everyone does. No questions asked.

The principle of inclusivity also keeps egos at bay. It is a reminder that you did not pass a ‘special person’ test to belong — you just happen to fit in here.

Instill a theme of gratitude

Why does laugher make people feel connected instantly? It is a specific, comprehendible social experience: When groups laugh, for a brief second, you all know you’re on the same page — you know what you’re laughing at and how it feels. That bonds people quickly.

Gratitude is similar. When someone expresses a shared gratitude, everyone is on the same page. It is specific and comprehendible shared emotion. And, like laugher, it’s flooding with positive energy.

Gratitude pulls people together in the best way. Fostering a theme and habit of expressing thanks, acknowledging effort, and recognizing casual magic goes a long way to make a group feel quickly connected. It’s easy to set this tone early by regularly expressing thanks.

Cringy programming >>

I appreciate people who appreciate structured activities. Cringy games and planned conversation starters can be elite if people are open-minded.

The retreat was filled with carefully planned programming that, I believe, bonded our cohort extremely quickly.

1. Awkwardness therapy

I suppose now is the time to mention that Cansbridge has an in-house Buddhist monk who was by our side the whole 10 days. His name is Shifu, he’s dope.

Along with daily morning meditation, Shifu led us in several sessions. My favourite was Awkardness therapy.

Here’s how it goes: Everyone sits in a circle. No one is allowed to talk for 10 minutes. You must continuously make eye contact with those around you. Not in a deep, lovey dovey way — Just circulating eye contact around the circle. For 10 whole minutes. No laughing. No expressions.

Rather than sharing what I took from this, I encourage you to try for yourself. Do it next time you’re in a group.

Morning walking meditation with Shifu

2. Rejection therapy

Receiving ‘nos’ can teach you resilience. But seeking ‘nos’ can also show you what’s possible. Based on a famous-sih TED Talk, one of our volunteer planners, Jesse Pound, sent us into the local town with the mission to be rejected by strangers.

One of us had to request a free pizza at Popa Johns. Another had to sell a rock to strangers inside a Verison store (for real money). I had to ask a customer in Dollar Tree run a stopwatch as I found their items for them.

Most of us were successful in the end (we ate a free Papa Johns cheese pizza for lunch). Perhaps we learned something about rejection, or perhaps we didn’t. But the shared adventure and challenge bonded us quickly. To build community fast, give people a challenge. If there’s a physical component, even better.

3. Conversation prompts

I’m a sucker for a conversation starter. I love card decks like We’re Not Really Strangers. I love posing hyper-specific or hypothetical questions. However, in a group, I’m often too nervous to do so at risk of seeming like the keener that I am.

One day at lunch, I worked up the courage (yes, this was actually kinda scary) to ask my table “What’s one thing you believe that most people disagree with?”.

Silence fell. Heads tilted. And then a conversation began.

We heard some deeply controversial political views. We gained insight into what we actually learn in school. We saw cultural differences come to life. It was one of my favourite conversations I had the whole trip.

Plan a bold question. Don’t be afraid to guide a conversation.

The power of presence

There have been two times in my life when I’ve felt long-term presence (more than several hours): Summer camp and the Cansbridge retreat.

Here’s how deep presence was cultivated:

  1. Phones breed sub-par connection. With a phone in your pocket, there’s always somewhere else you can be and something ‘better’ to look at. For fast bonding, encourage phones be left behind.
  2. The aforementioned cool-guy Shifu led the group through 30 minutes of daily morning meditation. Specifically, we did loving kindness mediation. I find loving kindness mediation both easier for beginners and great for setting positive group intentions.
  3. Be in nature, if possible. Trees and stars bring out the best in people. Friends show their hearts next to a campfire.
ugh I love camp

Trust by default

Lastly, communities must be built on shared trust. If you welcome someone into a community, trust you made the right choice. Trust their ideas, actions, and intentions. Let people lead whenever they feel comfortable doing so.

People will be stupid, but within bounds. Let people be stupid. It’ll work out.

The Cansbridge ’24 Cohort

The truth is, I cheekily divided the time frame to build a world-class community by ~365. It took 10 years to lay the foundation of this community, bringing it to the point at which 10 days was sufficient for family-level integration of the new cohort.

I’m so excited to join this family and incredibly grateful for the hard work and time that went into planning this retreat.

My hope is that Cansbridge is not unique. I hope other groups of like-minded people find and trust each other; laugh and grow together. I hope that Cansbridge’s world-class model can inspire equally profound communities.



Cassia Attard

Hey, I'm Cassia! I'm a 23 y/o Sustainability student at McGill. Previously, I've worked as a climate consultant and with various climate-tech projects :)