The Identity Wars

Finding out who you are before you get to college might help you stay afloat.

Photo of Barbara Lee
9 1

Written by

During high school, I managed to forge an identity that I wore daily, like a comfortable old pair of jeans. An identity that I crafted more out of wanting to be different than simply being myself. An identity that revolved around my parent’s expectations of how I should be — not in the world, but at home. 

My home life had been pretty insular. My parents, first generation Americans raised during the Depression, only knew what they saw on the news or processed from the court of public opinion. To keep my brother and me safe, and well-behaved, my mother made it clear: her opinions, and her way of doing

So my first week of college was a fright fest. Back in those days, we talked about “culture shock”:  I was shocked from one end of the campus to the other and hurled over the library steeple. I found I had zero resources for dealing with 1500 new people with new personalities and new behaviors whose names did not end in a vowel. I tanked.

So what could have better prepared me? 

I think a short course in understanding oneself would have served me well. A close reading of the self, if you will. A prolific reader, I was adept at close reading literature. But while I thought I knew myself, I realized pretty quickly at college that I didn’t. If someone had prepared me, somehow, for all the craziness, all the difference — maybe I would not have freaked out as much. If I understood that I was an introvert, and learned how to use that knowledge to my advantage, maybe I wouldn’t have tanked. As it was, I felt like I was surrounded by kids whose parents never punished them, so they were WRONG. All the time. Not a recipe for making friends.

Looking back, I compare my experience of going to college with having a baby. People love to talk about all the happy-gooey stuff, but nobody really talks about the physical pain, the exhaustion, the post-partum. If they did, no woman would ever get pregnant. But we have to know this stuff: we have to know that, when we get to college, we are possibly going to be intensely uncomfortable. We may question our own selves. Our strategies for dealing with the newness of things might take us to dangerous places. If we know this in advance, maybe we’ll be able to keep afloat. Better to know ahead of time that you’re headed into the deep end, and not the wading pool.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Dan Ryder

I know many colleges have a summer experience intended to help students get acclimated to college life, the academic and the social work that comes with it.   

I was drawn immediately to your title and this idea of uncovering one's identity in order to be better prepared for what lay ahead.   Like Charles Shryock, IV  I'm wondering what this course would look like.

And I'm also wondering what other tools might be developed that could achieve the same goal, yet take a different format than a course.

Photo of Barbara Lee

Dan et. al.,
After I wrote my post, I thought more deeply about what the shape of this learning could be. Like you say, it does not have to be a "course," per se. It might be an app. What I have in mind is a way to have a conversation with a counselor to help uncover what makes one tick. When I was a sophomore or junior, I took what was then called the MMPIs (Minnesota Multiphasic something-or-other), which helped predict which careers one might be well suited to. That's not what I'm thinking about. I'm thinking about something like the PMAI (Pearson-Marr Archetype Indicator), the Myers-Briggs assessment — tools like those which help lead to meta-cognition and a deeper understanding of the self. has those tests here:

I think that some assessments like these, coupled with conversation, could help reveal insights that would help students center themselves when faced with the incredible mania that can come during their first year at college. 

Sorry this reply is brief - my time is a little bit short at the moment. 

Photo of Dan Ryder

No apologies for brevity needed here -- that's a detailed and thoughtful response if ever I done did see one!  

I'm wondering if Ela Ben-Ur 's Innovation Compass might be an interesting lens through which to tackle this -- a way of building a sense of self portfolio that can be leveraged into a tool for college admissions.  

Wondering what if colleges were armed with the same tool as a way of identifying desirable students.

Photo of Ela Ben-Ur

Hi Barbara, and thank you, Dan!

I LOVE your storytelling, Barbara! Even just the visual of flying over the steeple made my day.

Interesting connection, Dan! I love the "sense of self" portfolio - very much what ongoing "compass" use creates, as we collect observations, principles, ideas, and experiments about ourselves over time.  And, a wonderful way for colleges to know the person and how they stretch themselves. 
I think the best a course, or app, can offer us is a way to find answers ourselves - about ourselves, about our "place" in new places.  It can't offer a map to every new place we'll find ourselves in life :)  That said, college is 

Photo of Dan Ryder

Playing a little more in the "What If . . . " space -- what if this app was a way of continually framing current needs and challenges  -- in the moment -- and that data/info might be used in a regular seminar or course -- helping students to be constantly aware of their needs and stresses and the instructor then having that info to help guide the seminar discussion?

View all comments