Supporting Your College Senior’s Loss of Identity
Despite the excitement that many college seniors are feeling and the joy they will have in being able to say “I did it,” some may also be feeling anxious and having a bit of an identity crisis. After all, one common identity that college seniors have had for the majority of their lives is that of “a student.” Most undergraduates likely started identifying as “a student” in elementary school and continued doing so right through senior year of college. It makes complete sense, right? Think about it, elementary school led to middle school, after middle school came high school, and for many college students it was always assumed that after high school they would pursue an undergraduate degree. For most college students, including those who took a gap year (or more), this progression has been quite predictable and the cultural “norm” for the past few decades. For them, “being a student” has been a constant. How many of you know a college student who does not include “I am a student at _____” in every self-introduction they make during their undergraduate experience? I find it’s usually within the first 2-3 things they share about themselves along with their name and where they consider home to be.
It’s not surprising then that as students inch ever-closer to college graduation, those who are not continuing their education with an advanced degree may feel a bit anxious and are asking themselves, “Who am I if I am not a student?” After all, being a student is familiar. It provides structure, resources, and community. And being a student at X institution has likely been a source of recent pride for themselves and their families. Additionally, high-achieving students’ identities as “a student” may have also been a unique source of confidence and fulfillment. They have had a lot of “success” (and likely received many accolades) as a student, understand who they are as a student, and may have many relationships based on their identity as a strong student.
For many, life after college may no longer include the identity of “a student.” Coming to grips with this can be a challenge for some, often subconsciously, as they move towards graduation. It may be disconcerting for students to grapple with “Who am I if I am not a student?” And yet, it is not something commonly discussed and many do not process it until the latter part of their undergraduate experience, if at all. Whether or not a student has definitive plans following graduation, it’s understandable that for those who will not continue their education to feel a bit melancholy or nervous about losing their identity as “a student” and to think about all of the changes and impending, new responsibilities.
College graduation can be a life-changing event and the start of the discovery of a new found self and identity, which will extend far beyond landing either that “perfect” job or an entry-level opportunity. The uncertainty and anxiety a senior may feel right now is shared by many of their graduating peers and it will not last forever. It is perfectly normal to feel a bit unsettled about going from being a student to being a “real” adult, but millions go through it. Whatever opportunity awaits a student will likely and seamlessly become part of their new identity. For many, change is difficult but often a good thing. Students will continue to grow as individuals and learn about themselves as they engage in new experiences. Ultimately, they will develop new identities that will quickly replace the familiar one of “student.”
Some tips for seniors to cope with their shifting identity:
- Participate in celebratory and ritualized events prior to and during graduation to help bring closure.
- Talk with your friends about ways to stay connected, even if only virtually.
- Stay physically active and maintain or establish regular eating and sleeping patterns.
- Be gentle and patient with yourself.
- Take note of any harsh, self-critical thoughts…and let go of the criticism.
- Practice self-compassion and mindfulness.
- Re-frame change. Make the novelty feel playful (e.g., find the best…. or revisit favorite “hometown” spots if moving home)
- Identify and focus on what you can control.
- Engage in your new community, volunteer, join a community organization, check out the YMCA/YWCA, etc., participate in recreation sports league or community band or theater.
- Remember you are more resilient than you think.
The truth is, losing an identity that is central to our self-image is hard. I hope every student can embrace the unknown and uncertainty and have blind confidence that they will soon find their way and discover the joy of a new identity by creating new experiences , with new people, in new places! But first, celebrate your tremendous accomplishment. Congratulations college graduates-you did it!
What suggestions do you have for seniors as the prepare for one of life’s significant transitions and a potential loss of identity as “a student?”
Beth A. Howland is a higher education consultant and college student success coach based in Ithaca, NY. She is the founder of College Navigators, LLC.