College is a time when many students either discover or enhance their true identities. In doing so, it can be daunting for some students to discover that their identities heavily revolve around their academics, or even more jarring: around academics they were pressured to study.
It’s not uncommon for some students, especially those studying high-rigor majors, to feel pressure from family or society to go into a certain career because of generational success, money or stereotypes. So, how can these students maintain their true identities while working toward a career that they learned to be passionate for?
University of Wisconsin-Madison student Ryan Lough, a sophomore studying biology on the pre-med track, thinks he has found a middle ground.
“When I realized that everything I was doing was related to being pre-med, I forced myself to do activities that I actually wanted to do or try, like taking tennis lessons when I’ve never touched a tennis racket in my life,” Lough said.
An important part of maintaining an organic identity is the ability to have separation between academics and hobbies while not mentally villainizing one and glorifying the other. This prevents a split identity and the risk of unfavorable characteristics being reflected in one’s personality.
“When my studies get hard, it’s easy to feel defeated because technically, I didn’t choose this struggle, so why am I doing it?” Lough said. “But then I remind myself that I’m excited for my future, and I still want to be a doctor, even if I didn’t exactly choose this path.”
Lough's career path was heavily influenced by his father, who has been a family physician for over two decades. It’s especially common for students who are pre-med to feel the heaviest pressures to go into the medical field from their family. In fact, one in five medical students are generational; that is, have a parent who is or was a physician, according to the American Medical Association. Thus, it’s important for these students to have an outlet for other interests that are unique to them so their lives and minds aren’t consumed by the pressure to succeed for someone else.
Finding that outlet is easier said than done. Just like a majority of busy students, Lough struggles to find time on campus for his separate hobbies. But, he tries not to lose sight of them.
“I have a whole list of activities I would love to do, but unfortunately my schedule just doesn’t allow for it,” he said.
Fortunately, Piyush Mekla, a freshman computer science major here at UW, has found a balanced schedule that helps his identity stay true and could potentially do the same for others. While on campus, he makes time for his interests by planning ahead.
“I try to schedule my hobbies at times when they complement my academic schedule,” Mekla said. “For example, I try to workout in the mornings to get my blood flowing for my classes later in the day.”
The way that Mekla is able to prioritize his various activities just may be the balancing act that many students ought to learn. While there’s many variations of how this could be done, creativity is essential to constructing a functioning schedule that involves classes, clubs, activities, time with friends and alone time.
While Lough and Mekla differ in academic majors, they also differ in how their studies affect their identities. Lough admits to occasionally losing himself in his studies and neglecting his other interests. Conversely, Mekla sees his academics as a companion to his identity, as he has always been interested in technology and business. Despite these differences, both students see the importance of keeping up with other interests — or at least keeping them in mind — in order to stay true to their internal selves.
Identity can clearly be impacted in many different ways, which makes maintaining it a unique process for every individual. Simply being aware of how your studies and identity are intertwined is a great way to pinpoint any unattended interests you may have.
In tending to these gray areas of your identity, you just may find a stronger sense of self that leaves you excited for the next step in enhancing who you truly are.