Posted inIdentity

An Identity in Flux

Illustration by Leyla Baxman.

Back in the nostalgic comfort of my childhood bedroom and yet to receive my vacation reading lists, I’ve been spending a lot of time tidying up. I say tidying up–what I really mean is going through cupboard after cupboard of ‘junk’ and reminiscing over all the phases I’ve been through. My stack of sketching-for-beginners books have sat untouched since I abandoned my dreams of becoming ‘artsy’ in place of my ukulele-based aspirations, which similarly found no use after I discovered punk rock.

Meanwhile, I ping-ponged around the political compass like a rubber ball shot out of a catapult and went through every hairstyle and visual aesthetic that mid-2010s Tumblr could dream up. You name it; I’ve probably done it, all while protesting that it wasn’t a phase and I was definitely going to be this way for the rest of my life. It’s easy now to put it all down to childish stubbornness. But if that’s the case, why has this pattern not faded away by my third year at university? Am I not supposed to become an adult and grow out of teenage indecision about who I am? And, if not, what does it mean that I’m a person in a constant state of change?

I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that university is often a time of huge personal change. For many students, it will be their first significant experience of life away from home. Without parents or guardians watching over their shoulders, students are let loose to decide how to present themselves and what to engage with. Suddenly, new people, challenges, and opportunities are waiting around every corner. This is especially true of Oxford University, with its world-class academics and vast range of extracurricular activities and societies. It’s a breeding ground for growth and discovery. 

For better or worse, it is also a home to previously-unencountered systems of categorisation. What college are you from? What subject do you study? What societies are you involved in? Did you go to a state or a private school? Pillars of our identity that we previously took for granted are suddenly challenged for the first time, treated not as default as they would be when surrounded by other people like us, but something to be classified and judged. It is no wonder that this provokes change in how we view and express ourselves. Do we tone down what makes us different, or dial it up in an act of defiance? Do we take these decisions home with us, or leave them in Oxford? Either way, we surely can’t emerge from university as the exact same person we were when we entered.

To complicate matters, it is at this point in our lives that we must confront the enormous pressure to have it all figured out: to decide on a career and take steps to pursue it through vacation internships, getting involved with the right societies, and networking with the right people. Packed into miniscule eight-week terms are all the burdens of setting up the rest of your professional life. At the same time that we are forging out into the ‘real’ world for the first time, we are expected to know exactly how we will spend the rest of our working lives.

It doesn’t help that we are met with enduring traditions everywhere we look, all harkening back to a sense of permanence as old as Oxford University itself. We embrace matriculation, sub-fusc, the college system, and (depending on your college) Latin grace at meals, as did the generations before us. The illusion of permanence thrives in everything we do as Oxford students. The message from our university environment and customs is that permanence is both possible and desirable. The effect of this message is the creation of a sense that we need to create permanence; to break the cycle of ‘phases’ and settle into something enduring. Something stable; respectable; functional; productive.

To be clear, I don’t mean to imply that everything is changeable. We can’t decide our regionality, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, or a thousand other aspects of identity. What we can do is continuously rediscover ourselves. University may be a catalyst, but it is by no means the end of personal development. We’re all in some degree of flux, and I mean that in the best possible way. As I look back over truly terrible photographs of myself from various stages in my life, I’m actually finding relief in the freedom I had to explore. It’s not something that I’m ready to give up. I was somebody else at sixteen. Maybe I’ll be unrecognisable at twenty-five. And that’s okay. I’m embracing impermanence.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have more ‘tidying up’ to do. Maybe it’s time to give those drawing guides another shot.