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How to Stay True to Yourself in College

By Anastasia Meininger

The end of summer has a nice, lazy feel—unless you’re heading off to college for the first time and you’re anything like me. When I was entering my first year, my thoughts were crowded with worries about making new friends and finding where my piece of the puzzle fit into the big picture of college. Now that I’m a junior, I feel at home in a community that once seemed so daunting, and I work to help other students feel the same way. 

I am a peer facilitator at American University, which means I co-teach two sections of a required class about helping first-year students set intentions for connecting with their new school community. 

The first topic we dig into is figuring out who you are so you can stay true to yourself as you join a new community. 

I graduated from high school and started college in 2020. The isolation, panic, and constant disappointment during that year stole a lot of my usual sparkle, so connecting with who I was when I finally arrived for the spring semester meant tapping back into my extroverted habits. I had to relearn how to be myself in an environment that encouraged distance. 

When thinking about who you are and the ways you experience the world, it’s helpful to consider how the broader parts of your identity, such as your race, gender, and sexuality, interact with things like your personality traits, family structure, values, and passions.

In class, my students and I go through exercises to explore our identities. It can feel weird at first, but my students usually get into the idea, and they’re often surprised at how grounded they feel after.

Learn five ways to start this year mindfully.

Ways to Get in Touch With Your Identity

Step 1: Start with the obvious. 

Write down as many parts of your identity as you can think of. Some ideas:

  • Race
  • Ethnicity
  • Gender identity
  • Age
  • Sexual orientation
  • Religious or spiritual affiliation
  • Geographic location

I find it easier to start with surface-level things, so I begin by writing down white, woman, and 19 (almost 20) years old. That way I’m warmed up to reflect on identities that are more complicated for me, like religion or spirituality.

Step 2: Ask yourself some questions.

  • Which ones do you think about most often? Least often? 
  • Which ones have the greatest effect on how you perceive yourself? 
  • Which ones affect how others perceive you?
  • Are there any you’d like to learn more about? 

Many students have shared that they wanted to learn more about their sexual orientation, ethnicity, and culture because they felt these identities couldn’t be fully explored at home due to others’ expectations. 

Step 3: Figure out what’s important to you.

A lot of things influence our identities, and some of them come from outside of us—such as family, friends, schools, teachers, and pop culture. 

These are good questions to help you understand which parts of your identity are important to you:

  • What parts of these influences have been positive? 
  • Have any been negative?
  • Are there parts of your identity that come from outside forces that you may want to reshape?
  • How could you work to change how you perceive yourself? 

When I did this exercise, I realized how grateful I was to my performing arts teachers, who taught me how to be a storyteller. But I also realized the beauty standards I’d absorbed from social media made it hard for me to feel confident saying, “Here I am! Look at me! Here’s my story!” 

Discovering that I’m a storyteller was a catalyst in my decision to study film and media arts, something I hope to make a career out of. In that role, I may be able to have some influence over the messaging around the importance of our stories. 

Plus, I realized I can work to let go of some of the toxic standards I’ve absorbed. It’s hard to combat them completely, but working against them made me see that there is value in everyone’s experience, and I joined my new community ready to uplift new stories. 

Experimenting With—but Staying True to—Your Identity

We’re not tied to all of our identities for life. College is a great time and place for deconstructing identities you’ve had throughout your lifetime and experimenting with new ones. 

For example, I have always dressed for comfort, not fashion. I wore leggings and hoodies so much in high school that people would ask me if it was a special occasion when I put on jeans. When I started college, I decided I needed a new aesthetic, so I put together Pinterest boards of outfits and bought new clothes I thought would give off an effortlessly trendy vibe. 

Yet I met my best friends wearing an oversize T-shirt that said, “No kangaroos in Austria,” which was so embarrassing. But it was way more “me” than the outfits I was trying to emulate, and my friends still bring it up fondly.

Experimenting with your identities doesn’t mean changing everything about yourself. Your true self always finds a way to peek through, and the people who are worth it are the ones who love you because they see you—“no kangaroos” and all. 

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