By Dylan Smith
An identity is a complex thing, especially during these malleable collegiate years between late adolescence and early adulthood. College can be a time of chaotic discovery in which we are able to find the passions that will drive us for the rest of our lives, a time when the world actually encourages us to change. We are given the chance to develop a distinctiveness that will act as the backbone of our future, to enact a catalyst for self-revelation that will impact nearly every aspect of our adulthood.
My question is this: are we allowing ourselves to change? Are we encouraging each other, as a university, to enable these kinds of discoveries within our peers, and within ourselves? Or are we being oppressive, treating academia as a grooming school for the middle-class, a hub of non-identity, with everyone looking at the same thing and thinking the same thing, all at the same time?
Now, on a macro level, I believe that the University of Nevada, Reno works hard to encourage change and opportunity among its students. There is a seemingly infinite number of opportunities for an individual to find a new form of affinity for the world. My worry is that, on a micro scale, an individual’s peers can discourage, if not entirely abolish, one’s ability to pursue these life-changing experiences.
We’ve all had that friend: the one who tears down someone for trying something new, for breaching the clique’s established comfort zone. These stubborn friends will do everything in their power to maintain and restore their sense of security, usually denouncing another’s attempt at alteration for fear of losing their own identity. This behavior does nothing but constrain an individual’s search for identity, breeding a hoard of cloned graduates.
Even collectively, as a highly developed, academic society, students constantly deter individual attempts at defying norms through an incessant need to define. We use blanket-labels as an excuse to ignore the individual, throwing any single person who is different into a pile with the rest, pronouncing them as “not like us.” This kind of behavior dejects whole groups of people from changing, out of fear of being thrown into the pile, out of fear of being called different. I’ve seen this happen at every level of development, whether it is during the transition from high school to college, from sophomore to junior, or from graduation to the “real world.”
In my experience, breaking the bind of a stale high school identity was the most difficult form of change I have gone through. I played baseball until I was nearly 20, embodying the typical jock persona and, for a long time, I was convinced that I enjoyed it. Because of my anxiety towards change, I chose to exemplify the carefree label of class clown, living life through a game-by-game, moment-by-moment lens of blind optimism: it was the opium of my adolescence.
It wasn’t until I moved to Oregon for my freshman year that I realized the power of change, seeing firsthand how weak the facade of social descriptions could be. Once I escaped the label-wielding ceiling of my high school friendships and I began to realize that my thoughts had been someone else’s opinion, that my life had been a mimicry and my passions a quotation. In that year of detachment, I discovered a deep passion for literature and writing, and the discovery of these passions ultimately shaped the foundation of my identity.
I was lucky, in the sense that I experienced a forced manifestation of change, living outside the control of an adolescent norm. The time enabled me to formulate an identity that was entirely removed from my youth, constructing a whole different kind of optimism in the changing scenery, in finding what was down the road.
This form of physical displacement, however, is just a metaphor: we should all be accepting of one-another’s changes. No one should have to tangibly detach themselves from friendships in order to find their identity. We should all have the liberty to change during the course of a day, to wake up as one person and to go to sleep as another.
It is up to us, as a university, to enable the identifiable changes among our friends, no matter how drastic or discomforting. In the same vein, it is up to us, as individuals, to be ourselves, whoever they may be.
Dylan Smith studies marketing. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @TheSagebrush.