Recently I watched a deeply moving film called, Live and Become.The story opens in a Sudanese refugee camp where an Ethiopian mother passes off her only child as a Jew so that he will be airlifted to Israel and thereby be given a chance to live and become. As the story unfolds, we observe the young refugee initially reeling from the trauma of losing his family. Then,with loving patience from his new family, he gradually adapts to his new life. Although his adoptive Israeli mother is loving and devoted, she cannot protect her son from the wounds of his origins nor from the bigotry and narrow-mindedness he faces as a black youth with an alien Jewish identity that challenges the mainstream.
As I relate this film to the student experience, I think of how many UO students are exploring their multiple identities. I’m not talking about multiple personalities here. I’m speaking of the tapestry of racial, cultural, political, gender and other identities that each of us must juggle and integrate in order to become a coherent self.
Socrates taught us that thinking begins with questioning. As students enter the intellectual life of the university, they often begin to question things they took for granted when they were younger. Some students will question their religious or cultural backgrounds. Others will explore and deepen their understanding of their racial and ethnic heritage. Some may question and change their peer groups to better fit their emerging identities. Still others may question and arrive at new places with their sexual or gender identities. Ideally, these explorations lead to a deeper and richer self understanding and expression. However, the road to self-affirmation and inner balance is paved not only with courage and resilience but also with hardship and tears.
While discovering their own authentic way of being in the world, students may have to confront the pain of bias, mistreatment or lack of acceptance. Often students are aided in the process of self-empowerment by joining with others who share their interests or cultural, racial or ethnic background. We all need mirrors in order to see ourselves clearly and also to feel validated in unique aspects of ourselves.
Here are some ideas for helping your student in this process of self discovery.
- Try to see who your student is becoming and not just who they were in the past.
- Be open to discussing your student’s emerging identities, should they decide to bring them up with you. One way to show your openness is by modeling acceptance toward others from diverse backgrounds.
- Be aware that at times students may feel like they don’t fit quite as well during visits home—or at least, like they are leaving important parts of their life back in Eugene. At the same time, many students find great comfort in returning to a place that feels familiar and where they can reconnect with their roots.
- While for many students changes in their identity are quietly internal, don’t be alarmed if your student adopts a new hairstyle, gets a tattoo or a piercing, or suddenly changes his/her clothing. These are likely ways of expressing an emerging identity.
Recognize that aspects of their lives students are exploring at school may momentarily eclipse other, more familiar parts. Eventually, the different aspects of their identity will most likely come into better balance. While most UO students —unlike the youth in the film —don’t have to flee dire circumstances in order to survive, many of your students have to wrestle with past and current identities in order to achieve a new synthesis and become who they are.
Mark Evans, Ph.D.