“College is the best four years of your life.” You’ve probably heard this time and time again. Whether you’re a freshman, current student, or recent grad — college is an incredibly transformative time in your life. Contrary to popular belief, college is more than just a massive party with a side of learning.
Going to college challenges the identity you create for yourself in high school, especially in the beginning. As fun as college may appear from the outside looking in, it can be a truly stressful time. Many students find themselves wondering, “who am I, and who do I want to be?”
The fact of the matter is, there are no simple answers to these questions. In a recent sit-down with Elizabeth Bracher, I tried my best to unearth insights into how college students grapple with this issue. Bracher, a professor at Boston College & former student on the Heights, has helped thousands of regular college kids, as well as student-athletes, make the transition into college life a little smoother.
Bracher reflected on her experiences with students, athletes, and more. College may serve as a foundation for the rest of our lives, but Bracher believes the quest doesn’t stop there.
Could you outline what you do at BC?
I played lacrosse at BC, I was a walk-on for the team. Senior year, I was one of the captains for the team. So that was back in 1987–1991. I worked and then went to grad school focusing on identity development in adolescents. What really has always intrigued me is how do we create or figure out who we are in this world?
I was in First-Year Experience for 17 years — bringing freshman to Boston College with their parents and families at orientation. I was helping them think of this idea of “Okay, you’ve been planning for a year and a half to go to college, and trying to figure out which is the best.” If you’re an athlete, you’re probably thinking, “who’s on the team, and who are the coaches, and what are the standings, and what are the colors of the uniforms and what conference are they in?” But how often are you thinking about the education you’re subscribing to? Very few 18-year-olds know what they want to do in life. Very few 25-year-olds know what they want to do in life. But life is a process of getting some experience and then studying, and then getting some experience, then studying. So it’s this back and forth of trying things out.
So you can have these grandiose ideas at 18 about what you’re gonna do. But you don’t even know what that means. What does it mean to be a business person? Or I have students saying to me all the time, “Well I like to work with people.” Well honest to God, there are very few people in this world that don’t wanna work with people!
I then began to teach a course called Courage to Know. And it’s about the courage to know yourself, the courage to know who you are. It’s an examination of yourself, and yourself in the outside world.
With high school students coming into college, what have you seen as a professor and administrator that kids struggle with?
What you have is imposter syndrome. What you have to realize about a school like BC is an elite, northeast university with a Division I sports program. The majority of BC students have played a sport in high school. So if you’re thinking that the majority of your students, wherever they’re going to, have been on a team before, the most frustrating thing for me is that idea of imposter syndrome… Everybody was captain of their lacrosse team, everybody was on the swim team. And as I talk about in class, there were a lot of kids who admitted that they did something in high school that they hated, but they did it anyway for the admissions process — and some of those are sports.
For those kids, it’s not really an identity, but rather an asset — something you can use.
It’s a soundbite, it’s a resume builder, and that’s how they see it. Then you’ve got the kids who are athletes and think their whole identity is wrapped up into it. You look around at orientation and every boy and girl is sporting a t-shirt from a high school team they were on. They’re putting out their identity through these teams. Then they come to a school like BC and can’t make the varsity team. And they know that… They will then immediately say, “well, I’m going to play club.” A lot of our students can’t play club because number one, they’re not allowed, there are not enough spots for the number of athletes who are capable of playing at that level. At BC, club sports are practically a division three-level.
[Me]: This relates to my experience with college. I played tennis for all four years of high school, on top of other sports with friends; sports was a big deal to me in high school.
Looking back, I was definitely the kid wearing the team sweatshirt at orientation — I wanted my classmates to know that about me. But when I realized there was no club tennis team, I remember being devastated. At that moment, I realized:
A lot of kids like you are resistant to re-defining themselves. When they go back to their high school, they’re known as that athlete. And the first question becomes, are you playing that sport in school? And it’s where the person that’s asking the question is just trying to engage in a conversation. The student, however, internalizes it as “I’m not good enough. I couldn’t make the team.” They see it as a negative. So then it takes them a while to recreate themselves.
Now a great example of recreating themselves, but using their physical ability, are the dance teams. The majority of the guys on the dance teams were varsity athletes in high school — but couldn’t play at BC. And then they saw at orientation these fun and funky moves that the step group is doing, or the hip hop group is doing. They found it to be a physical challenge.
Another example is that a kid sees this time as an opportunity to try something they have never done before. I had a student last year who was a volleyball player. That’s her identity, that’s her identity with her family. That was her identity in her school, that’s what she did all year, all summer.
She came to BC all ready to play on the club volleyball team, so she went to tryouts. She realized, “wait, if I do club volleyball, I’m not gonna be able to do Eagle EMS, which I really wanna do. I’m not going to be able to go on a service trip to Guatemala, which I really wanna do.
She became overwhelmed with the potential commitment. She came into my office in tears about it. She said, “I’m a volleyball player, but I don’t know that I wanna play volleyball anymore.”
And I said, “Then don’t.” She said, “But I’m gonna let everybody down.”
And I said, “Well tell me who you’re gonna let down.” “Well my parents, they keep asking me about volleyball tryouts, and they keep talking about the girls on the team and the people that I’ve met.” I said, “They’re just trying to keep you interested. They’re just trying to encourage you, and be your cheerleaders.” I said to her, “Who else are you gonna let down?” And she said, “Well my high school coach. My high school coach said I could definitely compete here.” And I said, “Then let your high school coach bear that burden. You don’t get to bear that, that’s not yours.”
How do these ideas and the changes in identity correspond to student-athletes in college?
There’s not many of them. They have been lauded for their athletic ability. For example, one football player many years ago — he’s huge — had size 15 shoes if that gives you an idea. He was out one night, they had a free weekend, and he comes back to class on Monday. He said, “I went out this weekend, everywhere we went, they all knew I was a football player.”
I said, “Well of course they did.” And he’s like, “I wasn’t wearing any Under Armor gear, I was in civilian clothing.” I said to him, “John, nobody’s walking around with size 15 feet and 6’8 with your build. You’re referred to as our O-lineman.”
They wear their identity wherever they go. That’s especially true for football and basketball. Because first of all, at schools like Boston College, the football teams and the basketball teams are filled with big guys and girls who wear the Under Armor gear, or they wear their issued clothing everywhere they go. They eat together as a team. And quite honestly, that’s how coaches bring them in — for the comradery of the team. To build the bonds of a team, you eat together, you study together, and you live together.
In all of the scenarios that we’ve talked about, it’s about breaking that wall or expectation you hold for yourself. For athletes coming in who aren’t gonna be playing club, or aren’t gonna be playing varsity, they kind of hit that wall a bit sooner. But there will come a time in every varsity athlete’s life when their college or professional career will end, and they’ll have to redefine themselves in some way.
College is like a giant buffet. It has almost everything you could ever want. But you have to go up and get it, and what you put in is what you get out. It’s not good enough just to have a college education anymore when it’s out, it’s about making connections. It’s about having mentors. It’s about having people to talk to when you’re not sure if people have your best interest in mind in the outside world. So the search for identity is always a balance of nature and nurture…
You’ve gotta have raw talent. Your nature is only going to take you so far. The other side of the coin is nurture. How does society react to him? Does society tell him, you know, that’s all you got, and you’re not gonna be able to do it? And you can certainly fight against some odds.
For the students coming into college this year — student-athletes, former high school athletes, NARPs (Normal, Average, Regular Person), and everything in between — what is one piece of advice you would give them, as they are inevitably going to go through changes?
I would like to see all athletes do something out of their sport. Get involved in something that is outside of the athletic association. That includes having meaningful friendships. You also need some balance no matter what type of person you are. You need some other people who don’t know you for your earned run average or the speed of your pitch. There are going to be times when it gets really overwhelming, and you feel like the only thing you’re being seen for are your percentages. So to have friends and friendships that know you for more than that is really important.
College will change you — that’s a fact. As Professor Bracher explained, the four years you spend there are like a buffet. Everything’s there for you to fill up your plate with. It’s up to you what you take and what you leave behind.
The journey toward creating your unique identity is a marathon, not a sprint. College is merely the first major hurdle in the race.