Frosh find ways to remake themselves

First-year college students have a rare opportunity to start over with a group of people who don't know anything about them

When Tracy Gottlieb went off to college she carried with her a secret: Her real name was Agnes.

But she just "didn't feel like an Agnes." In the summer before her freshman year, it dawned on her that she would be at a university where few, if any, people would know her. She decided to reinvent herself.

She would leave the old, frumpy Agnes of her high school years and introduce herself as who she really wanted to be: a gregarious and energetic woman named Tracy. That bold freshman-year shift changed the trajectory of her life, she says.

Today Dr. Gottlieb is dean of freshman studies at her alma mater, Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. This summer, as in years past, she'll be sharing her story with 1,200 freshmen during orientation and asking what high-school-era proclivities they, too, might like to shed by reinventing themselves.

"It's a unique moment in life when you can create your new destiny," Gottlieb says. "Nobody's going to say, 'You're ridiculous, you're not that way.' Everyone's going to believe and accept it."

She makes it clear, however, that she is not suggesting reinventing oneself by getting a tattoo, rebelling against parents, or getting into heavy drinking. "I'm talking about thoughtfully recreating oneself, not destructive behavior," she says.

Freshmen get truckloads of advice, of course, about everything from finding roommates to finding their true interests. Bookstores are piled with snappy guides offering tidbits like "find the smart person in class and study with him" or "pick the professor, not the time of day."

But Gottlieb and others note that freshmen are seldom told explicitly about the unique opportunity they have to make changes for the better in themselves - and without anyone being shocked at those changes, no matter how drastic.

"It's one of the few times in life you can start with a tabula rasa - if you want to," says John Gardner, senior fellow at the National Resource Center for the First Year Experience at the University of South Carolina at Columbia.

Being a "blank slate" has its advantages. If you're shy, you can try to be bold, Gottlieb says. If you're a mediocre student, you can sit at the front of the class and work hard. Despite this, however, many students labor through their college years strait-jacketed by parental, peer, and past expectations.

It may be because few students have been advised to think consciously about using their freshman year to divest themselves of the "rubber stamp" put on them by others, Gottlieb says.

"It's like a light bulb goes off in their minds when I say it," she says. "They realize it's important to stop and think: 'What don't I like about myself? How could I be a better person?"

In theory, there's room and time to explore, Mr. Gardner says, but there is "this enormous societal and parental pressure to decide right away on a major, to be on the fast track. I think it's a great shame."

Jennifer Keup at the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles oversees a national survey that tallies student attitudes after their first year.

While her survey does not ask directly about students' desires to reinvent themselves, Dr. Keup conducted one-on-one interviews with a handful of students. These indicated that the strong desire to reinvent themselves may be present among some students.

Among one group of nine students she interviewed, several said they were looking forward to "breaking free of preconceptions" of their high school years. One woman told how, as a quiet, bookish freshman, she mustered the courage to tell a joke that made everyone in a large group laugh.

"For her, that was a big step toward changing who she was," Keup says.

Such deliberate efforts toward major shifts between high school and college can have a life-changing impact, many agree.

After Nataly Kogan and her parents immigrated from Russia to New Jersey in 1989, she entered public school at age 13, a self-described misfit who spoke thickly accented English and wore dowdy, Soviet-style clothing.

After much teasing, she changed her name from Natasha to "Nataly," vowing to become even "more American" than her peers.

Dumping all things Russian, she perfected her accent by watching television sitcoms, transforming herself into a model American teen - not to mention an honors student.

But as a university freshman in 1993, when the high school peer pressure was suddenly gone, it dawned on Kogan she could reinvent herself again, this time by returning to her Russian roots.

"When I got to college, I remember just seeing all these different people and realized it was fun to be different," Ms. Kogan says. "I started telling everyone my name was Natasha and that I was from Russia. I had a fresh slate. I had this freedom to establish my new image."

One result was that, in addition to majoring in political science and economics, Kogan also tutored students and professors in speaking Russian and wrote her thesis on the economic development of the Russian mafia.

It was for her a return to something she loved about herself.

Today, Kogan is president of NATAVI Guides, a publishing company that produces guidebooks written by recent graduates to help students succeed in college.

"I had just closed that part of myself off," Kogan says of her Russian heritage. "Sometimes, looking back, I get scared when I realize that, if I hadn't had this turnaround, I would have missed out on all of this - and not found myself. I'm really so glad I did."

When Casey Gillece arrived at Duke University in Durham, N.C., as a freshman last fall, she encountered several identity shifters and "name changers."

"Almost everyone does at least a small makeover on themselves because it is such a remarkable opportunity to leave behind their past," she says.

One friend made the switch from Chris to Christian, she wrote in an essay reprinted in the Journal of College and Character.

Another friend, Katie, announced to her new college friends she was now just to be called Kit. Ms. Gillece notes that the first weeks of college are a "free-for-all for friends," which can result in some well-meaning exaggeration.

"It's a time when you can say anything you want about yourself and nobody knows if you're telling the truth or not," she says. "That's where the ethical part comes into it. I think you have to be true to yourself."

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