Frosh Find Ways to Remake Themselves ; First-Year College Students Have a Rare Opportunity to Start over with a Group of People Who Don't Know Anything about Them

Article excerpt

When Tracy Gottlieb went off to college she carried with her a secret: Her real name was Agnes.

But she just "didn't feel like an Agnes." In the summer before her freshman year, it dawned on her that she would be at a university where few, if any, people would know her. She decided to reinvent herself.

She would leave the old, frumpy Agnes of her high school years and introduce herself as who she really wanted to be: a gregarious and energetic woman named Tracy. That bold freshman-year shift changed the trajectory of her life, she says.

Today Dr. Gottlieb is dean of freshman studies at her alma mater, Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. This summer, as in years past, she'll be sharing her story with 1,200 freshmen during orientation and asking what high-school-era proclivities they, too, might like to shed by reinventing themselves.

"It's a unique moment in life when you can create your new destiny," Gottlieb says. "Nobody's going to say, 'You're ridiculous, you're not that way.' Everyone's going to believe and accept it."

She makes it clear, however, that she is not suggesting reinventing oneself by getting a tattoo, rebelling against parents, or getting into heavy drinking. "I'm talking about thoughtfully recreating oneself, not destructive behavior," she says.

Freshmen get truckloads of advice, of course, about everything from finding roommates to finding their true interests. Bookstores are piled with snappy guides offering tidbits like "find the smart person in class and study with him" or "pick the professor, not the time of day."

But Gottlieb and others note that freshmen are seldom told explicitly about the unique opportunity they have to make changes for the better in themselves - and without anyone being shocked at those changes, no matter how drastic.

"It's one of the few times in life you can start with a tabula rasa - if you want to," says John Gardner, senior fellow at the National Resource Center for the First Year Experience at the University of South Carolina at Columbia.

Being a "blank slate" has its advantages. If you're shy, you can try to be bold, Gottlieb says. If you're a mediocre student, you can sit at the front of the class and work hard. Despite this, however, many students labor through their college years strait-jacketed by parental, peer, and past expectations.

It may be because few students have been advised to think consciously about using their freshman year to divest themselves of the "rubber stamp" put on them by others, Gottlieb says.

"It's like a light bulb goes off in their minds when I say it," she says. "They realize it's important to stop and think: 'What don't I like about myself? How could I be a better person?"

In theory, there's room and time to explore, Mr. Gardner says, but there is "this enormous societal and parental pressure to decide right away on a major, to be on the fast track. I think it's a great shame."

Jennifer Keup at the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles oversees a national survey that tallies student attitudes after their first year.

While her survey does not ask directly about students' desires to reinvent themselves, Dr. Keup conducted one-on-one interviews with a handful of students. …