What You Do Is Not Who You Are: College Students’ Ever-Changing Identities

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The most invaluable lesson I've learned in college is that what you do is not who you are. Identity — finding it, losing it, changing it — is an essential part of the college experience.

For the longest time, I've composed my identity on the "what" — what organizations I'm involved in at school, what my views on a particular topic are, and what people think of me. It never occurred to me to consider why. Without knowing my true motivations, it's difficult to discern whether I truly want something or have been told I should want it.

Greek letters, summer internships, and student organization involvement can't compose an identity, but we certainly treat them like they can. This is, in part, due to the sense of accomplishment and social status granted.

But we're also desperately trying to understand who we are and how we fit in the world, while communicating that message to everyone around us. In all stages of life, we're incredibly quick to define ourselves this way, but especially in college. There's an expedited sense of urgency, encouraged by society, to be confident in our life's goals, hopes, and dreams.

My dad used to say to me that once I knew who I was, I could do anything. I wanted to do everything, so I defined myself resolutely — sometimes by my own terms, sometimes by other people's. Not knowing was not fun for me. It created a deep cavern in my chest, and I felt stuck at the bottom of it, panicking because I couldn't crawl out. The less I was certain about who I was, the more I sunk into myself.

I've competed in pageants to fund my higher education career for over five years now. These years were during the most formative time in my adolescence: my late teens and early 20s. I'll graduate debt-free next year because of my scholarship earnings from the Miss America Organization. I'll also enter the workforce with significant professional development in terms of public speaking skills, community service work, and a network of powerful women.

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A large part of who I am today is because of this opportunity, and I can confidently say competing in these competitions pushed me to be better in almost all areas of my life.

The catch is learning to understand that while pageants have contributed to who I am, they don't encompass my identity fully. That's something I'm still working on — not attributing my sense of self-worth to how successful I've been in something I've dedicated years of my life to.

There were times I woke up every morning with a mental to-do list of things I needed to accomplish in preparation for a competition, like practicing my talent and studying the various current events I needed to become extremely well versed in. If my list wasn't done by the end of the day, I didn't feel like I'd achieved my purpose. It felt like a day wasted — and that's no way to live.

While getting so wrapped up in the logistics and the day-to-day tasks of preparing for pageants, it was easy to forget why I began competing in the first place, and why I still compete.

I began competing in pageants to fund my education, looking at it as an investment and treating it as such. Along the way, I fell in love with the Miss America Organization, including the people in it and its mission to help young women create their own futures. When I'm reminded why I'm doing what I'm doing, the organization tells me more about who I am and what I value than a title or accomplishment ever could.

There is infinite pressure in college to show the results of your family's and community's investment in you. We feel the need to have a curated resume chock-full of involvement that's both relevant and impressive in the field we plan on entering straight out of college.

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That kind of single-minded focus can prohibit you from finding out what it is you really want, which will honestly change multiple times throughout college. As you continue to learn and grow, your priorities and plans will change a hundred times over — and that's OK.

It's OK because what you eventually decide to do is not who you are. It contributes to it, but it doesn't constrain your identity.

I think my dad's advice holds true: Knowing who you are is important before setting out in the world. The distinction lies in how you determine who you are.

People are ever-changing, ever-evolving — especially in college. Be comfortable with the fluidity of your sense of self over time. If you accept that who you were two years ago doesn't have to be who you are today, there is infinite possibility for who you can become.

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You will be different, but each version of yourself is fundamentally you. Each phase, each accomplishment, and each involvement that constructed your identity still applies — but it doesn't limit you.

I wish I would have known this at the beginning of my college career. I think I would've been a lot less hard on myself for falling short of what I thought I should be doing.

Who I am now is a combination of endless shortcomings, triumphs, and heartbreaks. My identity is not in spite of these things but because of them.

College is going to be an amazing and difficult time in your life, so give yourself some grace. Always keep your intentions at the forefront of your actions, and change the world for the better.


Meet the Author

Portrait of Ciara Callicott

Ciara Callicott

Ciara Callicott is a junior at the University of Alabama, where she studies political science and international studies on the pre-law track. At UA, she serves as Chairwoman of the Advisory Council on Wellness as well as Director of Strategic Initiatives for the Student Government Association. Ciara is the founder of the advocacy initiative Unite to Fight Poverty, which aims to combat poverty by teaching and utilizing the power of political advocacy.