Finding Your Interests and Identity Can Take Time

An odd thing happened to me last year at school. I joined a sorority.

Tell my first-year self about this, and she wouldn't have believed you. I had never pegged myself as the type. With a combined family income not much larger than Harvard's annual charge for room, board and tuition, I had a hard enough time battling feelings of inferiority in the general Harvard population, let alone one of its more exclusive subgroups.

It took me two and a half years to decide to join that sorority. I just pledged last semester--my junior spring--yet it's already become one of my most significant extracurricular experiences at school. The reason is that by the time I pledged, I was positive that the sorority was the right place for me, because I knew myself--a seemingly simple statement, but one that was a long time in coming for me.

Before I came to Harvard, I don't think I realized I had a "core me," an inner, essential self that didn't change. So I came to college determined to remake myself. I would be in a new place with 6,000 new faces who didn't know me at all. I could be anyone I wanted to, and no one would know whether the new me was anything like the old one.

So I decided I was going to be a new, cooler, more outgoing version of me. I would no longer go by Beth, as my high school friends called me--it was on to the sleeker, more sophisticated Elizabeth. My new standard-issue GTE Visa bought me a tastefully simple Gap wardrobe to replace the brighter colors of my more attention-getting high school garb. And I brought absolutely everything I owned to school. Every item of clothing, every photograph, every handy gadget, every poster and wall sign, because the truth is that I was terrified I wouldn't fit in. I had to have with me every possible option available so I could craft the Elizabeth I'd present to the Harvard world.

But when I got here, nothing seemed right. I felt totally lost. I was meeting what seemed like hundreds of new first-years each day, and none of them seemed all that interesting, nor did any of them seem anywhere near as nice or fun as my high-school friends. When I looked in my closet, I no longer knew what matched what. I had trouble making any sort of decision, because I had no idea who I wanted to be.

It seems to me that most first-years share these sentiments to at least some degree, though it certainly doesn't seem that way freshman year. But these feelings are highlighted--and exacerbated--by the orientation week activities fair. Organized by the Undergraduate Council, the fair is in a big tent you'll see on registration day, and remember for the next four years. You will come out of Sever Hall after having your I.D. photo taken and be routed through railings and ropes into this tent, which is filled with booths, and with representatives of each and every student organization on campus, all of whom are dying to sign you up for their clubs.

Here is what may be the best advice you'll ever get, so listen closely: Get out of that tent as quickly as possible. Nine out of 10 first-years end up jotting down their e-mail addresses on every list in the place, just because it's so convenient. The reigning thought pattern is, "Hey, why not get e-mails from this club? It sounds like I might be interested at some point in the next four years." Believe me, at this point you have very little idea what you will be interested in. Going into our senior year, I and most of my friends are still receiving weekly e-mails from at least a couple of groups we signed up for in that tent on a September day three years ago. And most of us haven't done a thing for those organizations in the meantime.

So at the activities fair, sign up for only those things you are positive you'll want to be involved in. There's plenty of time to join organizations later. Don't worry--even if you don't sign up for the juggling club and the puppetry club today, you can still hunt down their members and join later. And if you're worried that you'll forget about the clubs--well, chances are you didn't really want to try it that badly anyway.

This is easy for me to say now, having seen how few organizations ended up on my resume three years later. But at that registration fair, I would have had little clue which of them I'd end up enjoying. The solution to that is to sign up for few, rather than many, and then trade a new one you're curious about for an old one that didn't meet expectations.

And the only way that happens is through discovering who you are. Cheesy as it may sound, that's what your first year--and probably the second and third, too--is all about. I think I'm a particularly difficult case, in that I had so little sense of self to begin with, but it's really just this year that I've started to feel at home at Harvard and at home in myself. Yes, I still have a Boston wardrobe, with more black than any other color. But it includes very little from the Gap these days. (More from Express, in case you were wondering. Incidentally, both stores have branches in Harvard Square, so they, along with Ann Taylor and Urban Outfitters, will be your choices for clothing the next four years.) And it turns out I like going by Elizabeth. Most of my friends at home have switched to calling me that, because they think it's a better fit. And the sorority? I wouldn't have dreamed of it freshman year. So some of the changes have stuck.

But also, I've become more comfortable with who I was before. I realize now that I'm never going to be that turbo-outgoing extrovert I thought I'd become. I know that I need a certain amount of time to myself, and I don't like to go out every weekend night. I no longer feel the need to spend time making small talk with people who bore me, just so I can expand my horizons and make new acquaintances.

These days, I'm not embarrassed to tell people my mother is a waitress. At the same time, I don't automatically think of sororities as bastions of elitism and snobbery. The past three years have changed me, but the chief way they've done so is to show me which interests are truly compatible with who I am, and who I've always been.

These lessons are a long time in coming, and I know this piece skims over the intermediate figuring-things-out part of the process. But I've only got 1,000 words to convince you that, a) I was once as lost as you will be in September, and b) it does get better. Perhaps the chief lesson in all this is: Take it slow. You will find those people and places at Harvard that make you happy. Don't overdo it; just have patience and relax. I wish I'd been able to. Then I'd have less junk e-mail and fewer unworn Gap outfits in the back of my closet.

Elizabeth A. Gudrais '01 is a literature concentrator in Adams House.