Your College Identity

The first year of college is your big chance to focus on those personal qualities you’ve always wanted to refine, or to give yourself a whole new identity. You’re also going to experience a lot of personal freedom: you’ll get to wear what you want and you’ll even get to argue with your teachers without fear of punishment. In fact, debate is encouraged.

Challenging your thinking is what college is all about. No matter where you’re enrolled or what you major in, college will challenge your worldview and personal values on every level, thus transforming your identity.

We are not necessarily saying that you’re going to become a whole new person or that you’re going to abandon everything you’ve ever believed in. If you have strong convictions when you enter college, critical thinking won’t require you to change your mind. Being critical of what you see and hear means pondering ideas in new ways and allowing that experience to enrich the way you already think. As your knowledge and experience of the outer world expands, your inner world expands too.

Beyond learning about Asian art, organic chemistry, and women’s history in college, you will learn a lot about the world through the people you meet. You’ll have new friends, roommates, classmates, and professors who come from different socioeconomic groups, religions, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. In discovering your differences and commonalities with others, you’ll sharpen your own identity.


Your ethnicity includes your heritage, culture, history, and rituals. Many applications and forms have little boxes where you are asked to check your ethnicity: which box do you check? Do you leave this section blank? On a very basic level, that’s how you identify yourself.

If you want to learn more about your own ethnic background, or if you just want to bond with other students from a background that’s similar to yours, check out some of the student associations on campus. On most campuses you’ll find Asian/Pacific Islander, Latino/Latina, African American, and Native American student associations, among many others.


If you have strong religious convictions, there’s no reason why you can’t continue to practice religion in college. Nearly all colleges have resources that direct students to their local church, synagogue, or mosque, and many schools have these institutions right on campus. The office of student life will be able to direct you to student clubs and associations such as the Jewish Student Association (often called Hillel), the Catholic Student Association, and the Islamic Student Association.

Maybe you were never religious to begin with, but you’ve decided that now is the time to explore spirituality. Religious or meditative disciplines may give you the strength to develop your personal identity. If you’re interested in learning about a religion, attend some on-campus religious services: you will certainly be welcome. Many campuses also have opportunities to get involved in Buddhist meditation, drum circles, and martial arts. If your school doesn’t seem to offer anything that interests you, keep an eye out for flyers that announce bible studies, group meditation, and yoga. Remember, you can be spiritual without being religious.

Sexual Orientation

A lot of college students don’t really know who they are or what they like when they get to college. There’s a lot of pressure in most high schools to fit in and be uniform. This means that a lot of gay teenagers have to “play straight” for years. Perhaps they’re afraid to tell their family and friends, and perhaps they’re afraid to admit their sexual orientation to themselves.

In college, these restrictions disappear. There are many openly gay students and faculty on campus, which creates an instant community for students who are coming out. If you’re a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered/transsexual student, seek out your school’s LGBT association. Some large universities and liberal arts colleges also offer courses on gay and lesbian literature and history. If you’re questioning your sexual orientation, you’ll always be welcome at any LGBT event on campus. You can also go there if you’re heterosexual and “gay friendly”—straight but not narrow.

Experimenting with sexuality is common in college. Straight kids of the same sex may get together and gay kids may hook up with the opposite sex, to see what it’s like. People figure out who they are regardless of their experiences. You don’t have to label yourself: just be sure to be yourself and only do what feels comfortable for you.

    Tips for Coming Out
  • Don’t be surprised if the person you’re coming out to already knows, or has suspected, your sexual orientation.
  • It’s better to come out to people privately than to blurt out your sexual identity to a large group.
  • Prepare yourself for questions about your sexuality.
  • Think about your motives for coming out to this person. Are you hoping that this person will better understand you? Are you afraid that they will hear about your sexual identity from another source? Do you want to let them know up front so you won’t have to use ambiguous phrases like my friend or my partner or them and they instead of him or her?
  • Think about the moment ahead of time. For example, if you’re coming out to a roommate you might want to say, “I want to tell you upfront that I’m gay. I want to know if this is going to affect us as roommates.”
  • Understand that your new friend or roommate may not accept you right away, if ever. If you feel that your living arrangement won’t work out, go immediately to your RAs and let them know what’s going on.
  • Don’t be drunk or high when you come out, and don’t come out to people who are drunk or high.
  • Give people time to process the information. Don’t expect the “right” reaction right away.
  • Don’t blurt out the news at odd times (e.g., while you’re driving a car, in the middle of a silent candlelight vigil, while cliff climbing).
  • Remember that you have the right to leave a situation if you feel offended by someone’s reaction.
    What to Do When Friends Come Out to You
  • Don’t assume they are hitting on you (don’t flatter yourself!). Just like straight people aren’t attracted to most people of the opposite sex, gay people aren’t necessarily attracted to you just because you’re the same sex, either.
  • Take it as a compliment. If someone is coming out to you, it means that they value your friendship and think you’re trustworthy and understanding.
  • Don’t act calmly and tell them they have your support and then run across the hall to gossip with excitement.
  • Ask them if it’s OK if you “out” them in discussions with others. If they say no, respect their wishes.
  • Don’t be judgmental. If you have strong beliefs that everyone should be straight, wait before discussing them. Tell your friend that you don’t know what to say, and that you need time to think things over. Respond only after careful thought.
  • If you’re unsure what to say, learn about gay issues before you discuss the situation with your friend.
  • If your friend is transgendered or transsexual, ask which pronoun they prefer when speaking to and about them.
  • If your friend is transsexual, do not ask about their physiology or how they have sex.
  • Talk to your friends more frequently than you did before, to affirm that you really do care about them and accept them. Coming out can be scary.
  • If your friends are afraid of violence directed toward them now that they are out, don’t dismiss your friend’s fear. Gay, lesbian, and transgendered people do experience discrimination. Instead, let them know that you are there for personal support.
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