'Identity becomes a kind of backpack, that each of us carries around' foto: 123rf

‘It’s an illusion to think you can separate yourself from your identity’


Students who discover their identity by travelling a lot. It’s just not really student Ruben Ros’ thing. By pretending to be better than the people who are stuck in a uniform identity, you place yourself above others. For real engagement, you don’t have to drag your yoga mat to Thailand.

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Last month, DUB published a contribution by Peter Nafzger about students’ identities. In the article, Nafzger states that Dutch students wrongly reduce themselves to one specific identity. This narrow-mindedness, he claims, leads to a conservative stance amongst student associations, who aren’t open enough to international students.

The definition of identity in the article, as well as the forthcoming conclusion about students and student associations, are problematic, however. At the same time, the piece touches upon fundamental issues in internationalisation; problems I would like to mention and question.

In their college days, many students are looking for their identity, Nafzger writes. In contemporary society, many types of identities proliferate, based on race, faith, nationality, culture, or social class, and more options are still being added. Even though there’s no such thing as ‘the’ identity, many students still fall back on their national, religious, racial, or association identity.

Identity as a backpack
Although identity isn’t a static concept, it’s still odd to state that a certain group of people (students) reduce themselves to one single identity too much. In this manner, identity becomes a kind of backpack, that each of us carries around. The content of the backpack changes, and has to change. Surpassing your ‘original’ identity becomes a sacred goal.

This backpack-thinking is objectionable for two reasons. Firstly, your identity isn’t as malleable as the image portrays. The way you look at yourself and others is changeable, but it’s not truly a matter of conscious acts. The assumption that you’re able to ‘reduce yourself to’, or ‘separate yourself from’ a previous identity is an illusion.

Furthermore, this way of thinking also leads to harmful moralism. The article says it’s good for us to differentiate our identity as much as possible, in order to free ourselves from prejudice. Nafzger presents his girlfriend as an example, “who, thanks to her travel-filled past, freed herself from this stereotyping.”

The traveller is a persona
Of course, opening yourself up to others only leads to good things. Still, identity, as mentioned, is only malleable to a certain extent. The idea that travelling would fundamentally change your identity is especially doubtful.

Travelling can be fun and confronting, but do you really change because of these trips? These days, travelling itself has become an identity. The traveller is a persona, firmly rooted in the illusion of self-development in which contact with other cultures is limited to uncomfortable conversations with local tour guides during carefully-planned day trips.

Within the student community, the oft-praised Erasmus experience is a good example of identity shaping under the guise of ‘shaking off’. Despite the positive sides, like an international network and improved social skills, I don’t think the Erasmus programme truly helps one rise above ‘original’ identities, but instead, produces a generic, drinking Erasmus student, who mostly aims to obtain easy college credits in a city where the alcohol happens to be just that bit cheaper.

Status of enlightened cosmopolitan
And even if we do suppose all that travelling leads to enlightenment. What to think of all the young people who don’t have the means to spend a gap year surfing on a dying coral reef in Australia? Are they destined to remain stuck in their uniform identities forever? How can they reach the status of enlightened cosmopolitan? With the concept of identity as a backpack, only the rich can afford to travel around the world and find themselves in a transcendental Third Culture.

If there’s any moral message we should link to identity, let it start with an open attitude and true engagement. You don’t have to drag your yoga mat to Thailand to do that. Start with your neighbour, or the asylum centre around the corner.

Criticism on internationalisation
Nafzger’s article shows very well what kind of repercussions this superficial backpack-thinking can have on internationalisation policies. The ideal of ‘rising above’, as said before, often goes hand in hand with a large dose of self-interest. By pretending to be better than people who are stuck in a uniform identity, you place yourself above others. With all these cool Instagram pics, you’re mostly working on an image of yourself. In a comparable way, internationalisation at Dutch universities is something that’s mostly organised for one’s own gain. The internationals are mainly cash cows. Their wallets fill the holes caused by two decades of cutbacks. For students and student associations, everyone who questions the careless adoption of international students (without offering them proper living arrangements) instantly calls the suspicion of conservatism down on their heads.

True, there’s a world to win at the associations – but this is mainly true for the corporal ones. Archaic gentlemen’s clubs like the USC truly have a lot to learn in terms of breaking up the nuisance-causing mono-culture of toxic masculinity. In many other associations, however, things aren’t quite as bad in alcohol abuse, the urge to homogenise, and exclusivity. Surely they could be doing more to promote diversity, but it’s not the case that associations are, by nature, closed and conservative.

For the associations, then, the current internationalisation policy is extraordinarily one-sided. With a few quick adjustments, interactions, engagement and identity transcendence could be demanded – a way of thinking we find in Nafzger’s article as well.  If the associations would just start speaking English as quickly as possible, things will be fine, seems to be the idea. There’s no true engagement. We can only truly start to appreciate diversity by respecting differences, and not by striving towards a grey, shapeless Third Culture academic community.

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