In August 1996, I stepped foot onto the campus of Northeast Louisiana University (now the University of Louisiana at Monroe). At the time, I had no clue how I even ended up at NLU, about 90 miles from my hometown. It was just the thing to do. Once I graduated high school, college was the next stop on the road of life. However, at seventeen, I did not quite know what to expect when I started taking classes and trying to navigate the new, unfamiliar landscape. As such, I did not perform well in my classes during those first couple of years, but I did find out more about myself and constructed an identity of my own.
Last post, I wrote about the “Personal Identity Narrative Essay” that I have been thinking about assigning in my composition classrooms this semester. Today, I want to expand upon that post by exploring one of the readings I mentioned. In chapter four of Lecrae’s Unashamed (2016), he writes about his experiences as a freshman at the University of North Texas (UNT) and trying to define his identity. While my background is not the same as Lecrae’s, his struggle to figure out who he was during that period matched my own experiences to a certain extent. For most students, no matter their background, Lecrae’s opening description of college in “Lost Man on Campus” details their thoughts during that first year of college. He writes,
Sometimes life hands you an opportunity to do better, to be better, to correct your course, to carve another path. For millions of young people each year, going to college offers one of these big breaks. It’s like hitting the reset button on life. No one knows what you’ve done or who you are. You can take all you’ve learned as a child and teenager and construct the person you want to be. College allows you to make better decisions, better friends, and a better future. There’s only one catch: when the opportunity comes, you actually have to take it. (61-62)
Here, Lecrae voices the feelings of a multitude of students (first generation or not). For me, as a first generation college student moving away from home, I saw the campus as a place to reinvent myself, and I did. I took what I learned during my childhood and as a teenager and applied it to what I was experiencing at NLU.
The key part to this reset, though, centers around finding a group to become involved with during one’s time at college. Even though you define yourself, finding a collective of people with similar beliefs and ideas helps in that process. Lecrae talks about this search for a “tribe” in his chapter. He chose the UNT over other schools such as Texas A&M “because it had the most black students for its size” who looked, talked, and dressed like him (65). Even though it had the “most black students,” they did not all fit into the same group. So, he had to search the different groups to find people to latch onto: popular students, athletes, artistic students, and others.
Ultimately, Lecrae found a group of students to latch onto, ones like him. He terms them “the hood crowd.” These students, like himself, were first generation students who did not know what to do in order to make it in college: “[T]hey didn’t know ho two succeed once they arrived. No one had gone before them to show them the ropes and mentor them through it” (68-69). Since they had no one to show them how to succeed, they reverted to old habits. This is where first year experience programs come in. I wrote about these briefly during my last post, and these programs differ from university to university. If I had had a program like this during my first semester of college, I may have done better during my undergraduate work.
While Lecrae’s biography provides students with a nonfiction reading about identity and that first year of college, there are fictional readings that could work as well. For instance, T. Geronimo Johnson’s Welcome to Braggsville (2015) tells the story of four diverse students who go to UC Berkeley for college then to Georgia for a protest demonstration. D’aron Davenport, a white Southerner from Georgia, is the center of the novel, and throughout, he struggles with his identity and how to fit in with others. During the first part of the novel, he works to fit in as a freshman at UC Berkeley, a school far removed from his experiences in Georgia.
Upon coming to UC Berkeley, D’aron does not speak up, even though he sits in the front row of his classes. He feels out of place and inferior. At one point, he starts to think about the other 36, 142 students at the schools. He thought that every one “played an instrument or a sport or volunteered for a social justice venture or possessed some obscure or rare talent. Or all four” (7). Rather than seeing himself as deserving of being at UC Berkeley, D’aron fights with himself and his “inadequacies,” not unlike most students. Like Lecrae, he feels out of place, and he is the first person in his family to go to a school like Berkeley.
Perhaps most useful to students and the “Personal Identity Narrative” is chapter seven. Here, D’aron finds his application essays and reads them. In each essay, he defines himself in different ways, mostly based off what he thinks the school wants to hear. For example, he plays up his working class background, and he also tries to claim that the community is multicultural, when it isn’t. What do these types of comments mean when constructing identity? Students can think about this when writing their own essays. How do the words and phrases they choose work in constructing their identity?
What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below.
Johnson, T. Geronimo. Welcome to Braggsville. New York: William Morrow, 2015.
Lecrae. Unashamed. Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2016.