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
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
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. …