Many students struggle to find and accept their evolving identity when they transition into and out of college. Both incoming and graduating students often leave behind identities that have been built up over the course of many years. Students often find that the things that defined them previously (academic ability, academic major and college affiliation, relationships with family and friends, religious affiliations, extra-curricular activities [athletics, drama, band, Greek Life, etc.] are no longer available to them in college, graduate school or the workforce. Exposure to diverse ideas and people also tends to shift students identities and make them contemplate ways they agree and disagree/identify and not identify with new perspectives and people .
Identity loss often creates an immediate need to rebuild one’s identity as quickly as possible; people want to reconnect with the familiar and will seek out groups and people that they feel comfortable around. My research on Greek life showed that it was the loss of family camaraderie that resulted in the expansion of fraternities during the 19th century and I’m certain that many other student groups and informal entry level professional meet-ups are created to meet the same goals. While joining groups and befriending new people quickly is often used as a effective coping mechanism, it can also have negative side effects. New students may recognize that the people they befriended at the beginning of the term don’t share their values, ideas of how to have fun, study habits, etc. Recent graduates in a hurry to get jobs and build a new life may realize the same things about their new coworkers and friends and also feel disconnected from their employer’s values, goals and expectations.
Identity loss and subsequent gain can also stir a great deal of emotion in students, particularly when identities are attached to systems of oppression and privilege. Students and recent graduates often experience some or all of the definance, disorientation, anger, sadness, acceptance, and celebration that come when going through identity development. These emotions can take a tremendous toll on academic and professional performance as well as success in building a new community.
Student affairs professionals must be able to recognize of this identity disequilibrium, discuss its causes and effects and create ways to lessen its negative impacts. Based on my own transition to graduate school, I think that it is important for peopleto be given the opportunity to speak about the people, responsibilities and things they are leaving behind up in order to come to school or leaving it. In naming these things, the subsequent identity loss may seem more apparent and easier to address and perhaps substitute. A student who is missing taking care of a younger sibling may be able to get a part-time job working at a campus daycare center; a recent graduate who misses her sorority sisters may be able to join a all-woman sports league or re-engage in philanthropic work.
It is also important for students to recognize that relationships, club and school affiliations and many other identity determinants are constantly evolving and therefore the identities attached to them are also subject to constant questioning and development. Students must also be aware of and allowed to explore their more deeply held identity determinants (values, life philosophies, long-term goals, cultural connections) and decide how these identities will affect their academic and professional lives.