A New Way to Define Yourself During Your Defining Years

Why You Can’t Sort Out Your Life’s Destination Without First Knowing Your True Definition, Whatever


Published: September 22, 2010

“Well, what are you waiting for?” my blank piece of paper whispered to me as I stared at the professor’s assignment for the class. Another couple seconds passed before the paper spoke again, impatiently: “You know the answer to the question; just write it already!” But the truth was I did not.

The assignment was for us to list the labels we identify with the most, putting the labels most important to us at the top.

Though high school Monique would have quickly put the labels “black,” “female” and “middle class” (in that order) at the top of the list, I was surprised to find that as a college freshman I was unsure of how to identify myself. I still qualified as a black woman in the middle class, but I knew that none of those labels defined who I really was. Rather, they labeled me as a statistic. Now as a sophomore reflecting upon my earlier quest for identity, I say to this year’s freshmen class: challenge the labels you made for yourself in high school becasue that faded, old label may not help you achieve your goals or a thorough understanding of yourself.

I have surely faced this challenge, for I was forced to shed my old, rigid and vague identity for a new one specific to my character. When I first entered Lowenstein, I believed that one’s racial identity was more important to a person’s being than I do now. Between attending a high school where I was repeatedly confronted with being a minority through racist slurs and jokes, and training in a performing arts school where black culture was constantly drilled into its students, I began clinging to my identity as a black person tighter than a toddler would hold on to his favorite blanket.

Yet as my college career began, a new set of experiences began to unfold. I was in a foreign environment, expected to make decisions alone on courses of study and possible career paths, offered with the largest selection I had seen.

Through all of this, I still held on strongly to my racial identity. But the mere fact that I was black did not help me answer the daunting question, “What is it I want to do with my life?” For what else could my racial identity tell me about myself other than I was a descendent of African slaves who were brought to work on the sugar cane plantations of Guyana? I eventually learned that looking to my racial identity for answers on what career path to take was insufficient, and I began to question myself in this new environment, unsure of which path to take and insecure about who I was.

My story is only one out of many describing a young person grappling with his or her identity, but anyone could have gone through the same thing. The importance of identity is obvious: we need a clear understanding of our ourselves to give us purpose in the world we live in, supplying us the ability and the confidence to help ourselves and others around us. But when asking the question, “How do I pursue an identity that best represents who I am and helps me find my purpose?” uncovering the answer is not so clean-cut.

I have found that continuing to ask myself questions based solely on my wants and needs helps tremendously. Once I started to focus on more essential and interesting traits than the hue of my skin and the curls in my hair, I asked myself, “What are my personal interests and attributes? What are my shortcomings and how do I fix them?” These are the questions I strongly believe we all as college students should be asking ourselves. Doing this will help us leave Fordham University with a direction, a philosophy and a plan.

Now, another school year has begun and a brand new and diverse class of students is walking the halls of Fordham. I can recognize the freshmen students as they walk around their new campus starry-eyed. These students will soon have their own stories of freshman year completely different from mine. Yet the theme will be the same for us all: we must find a way to identify ourselves that captures our character and how we want to contribute to society. My way is to start by rejecting generic socioeconomic identities and exploring who we are on the inside. What’s your way?