Finding Yourself in College: Fostering Identity Through Exploration

By Shaila Humane

During the first few days in college, 3,000 disoriented students make a mad rush to find their footing after being plucked from a comfortable, settled home and plunged into a sudden unknown.

Everything we’ve ever known has suddenly been taken from us—our familiar surroundings, our friends, our family, our routine. This sudden change often causes questions of identity and sparks the need to understand who we are as individuals.

Humans like order. That’s why we recognize patterns that aren’t there and why we subconsciously label, stereotype and categorize people—it gives our brains a false sense of control over the crazy world we live in. Having some concrete grasp on our identity satisfies our need for order; it helps us feel in control. If we don’t know who we are, or if our identity is threatened, we feel alarmed, disoriented, and unsettled (cue existential crisis).

Throughout life, we often identify with things and possessions around us, and then are distressed when they are taken away. For most students, their hometown, family, and routine have been fully entwined with their identity, and so the sudden loss of these causes confusion and damages their idea of who they are.

Art by Francesca Hodge

College, as we are told over and over again, is the place where you are supposed to find yourself. But this implies that there is some sort of set-in-stone “you” that you need to find. It implies that “you,” your identity, is constant and defined. But that’s just not true. Defining ourselves does not mean looking for something that is already in existence, unchanging, and waiting to be discovered; but rather, creating something new. Identity is fluid; it’s shaped over time by experience and actions.

Instead of finding yourself, college is the place to foster yourself.

Generating identity through “finding” often results in association with external, material things, which can limit your individuality and creativity. Group identity and social comparison are two of the most common external forms of defining identity. Group identity means defining yourself through association with other people or groups (e.g. I work for ABC Corporation. I am married to Jim and have two kids). Evolutionarily, humans have grown to naturally try to conform to society, to fit in, because it is beneficial for the human race to form communities. However, this progress in evolution has unwanted side-effects that can hold us back today.

Belonging to groups is a normal part of life, but when you begin to define yourself solely by a group identity, you limit your growth. Limiting yourself in this way encourages conformity and often results in blind obedience—for example, sacrificing some of your values and beliefs for those of the group, or conforming to stereotypes and customs of the group that you would not adopt under other circumstances. Those who challenge the status quo, who stand out, and step outside of the box without fear of rejection from society, are the ones who often succeed. Defining yourself through group identity puts labels on your selfhood that hold you back, prevent growth, and limit you to a box defined by those labels.

By defining our individual identities through social comparison, we begin to value status symbols, which can often cause feelings of inadequacy or unmerited superiority. When individuals define success in relation to these status symbols, any failure can result in a blow to personal sense of self.

Leaving our homes has freed us from most of these external factors in defining identity. Here at Cornell, no one knows (or cares) what you got on your SAT, or that you won your high school science fair. You no longer live with your family, and you’ve had to leave many of your possessions behind. This means that we have the opportunity to foster and create new individual identities. We can generate these identities through exploration, through experimenting with different ideas and world views, and through finding things that work and things that don’t. College allows us the freedom to explore, which is the best and only way to truly foster identity.

In his book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, William Deresiewicz writes, “To find yourself, you first must free yourself. You won’t be able to recognize the things you really care about until you have released your grip on all the things that you’ve been taught to care about.” We have been given an opportunity, whether we like it or not. We’re forced to take a step back, free ourselves from most of the external things we’ve known, and say, “Whoa, who am I really, if not just some human body that eats, sleeps, breathes, and takes up space? And who do I want to be?” It’s an opportunity to take time to reflect and explore life, instead of floating through existence.

Without fostering our identities, we cannot live up to our true potential and we slide into instability. If we fill our definitions of identity with possessions, people, and status symbols instead of meaning and introspection, one day this façade will fall and leave us shattered. Knowing who we are, and how and why we got there, protects us from the future. It makes us resilient. A chance like this doesn’t come often—we better take advantage of it.

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