We associate enrollment in college with higher education, of course. But there is another, more personal opportunity that awaits everyone entering those hallowed halls: a chance to reinvent yourself.

College symbolically removes every student from all the cliques and stereotypes of the past: the popular crowd, jocks, geeks, band buddies, drama people, and Goths have all morphed into new identities in the larger, more heterogeneous pool of students. For some, this lack of label might be unsettling; but for most students, it’s supremely liberating.

If you want to take the measure of how much those stereotypes stigmatize high school students, all you need to do is attend your own high school reunion. Half the evening is spent commenting on how classmates have either maintained their labels, or broken that old mold. Attendees feel flattered when one of the “popular” group speaks to them around the buffet table, and are surprised to see a “nerd” who is no longer introverted and shy.

I was pretty geeky in high school, and my social life mostly centered around going to foreign films with small groups of other girls who were similarly geeky. When I entered college, I knew I wanted to be someone different from the old me. I wanted to join a volunteer group that would have an effect on society. No more introversion for me!

My opportunity came with an “Activities Fair” still common in most universities. Campus organizations set up tables in a common area, speak to interested students about what they do, and pass out recruitment literature. I liked the sound of the Program to Activate Community Talent, PACT, and signed up to find out more about it.

Operating out of a church on the edge of a ghetto near my university, PACT devoted itself to helping the community in several ways. I was involved with the weekly after-school sessions for teenagers. My major memory is that I made many chocolate chip cookies with a group of teenage girls whose families were struggling, and for whom college was an unattainable dream.

Sometimes we’d walk up the street to the college dorms and hang out on the quadrangle, just so they could see a world very different from where they lived less than a mile away. They called it the “magic kingdom.”

After each session with the teens, the student volunteers met with a social worker who facilitated the sharing of experiences and strategies on making our groups more successful. (The social worker used this community action experience as the basis of a published study.) It was during one of these group sessions that I met my future husband of 41 years!

This group continued for two semesters, when the demands of a double major forced me to leave PACT. I don’t know if any of my girls finally made it out of her neighborhood and into the university, but I assume some did, and broke out of past molds.

I like to think this might have been, in part, because of our visits to the “magical” college campus where all students are given the opportunity to reinvent themselves economically, socially, personally, and intellectually.

Erica Jacobs, whose column appears Wednesday, teaches at George Mason University. E-mail her at ejacob1@gmu.edu


What kids  are reading
This weekly column looks at lists of books kids are reading in various categories. Information on the books below came from Amazon.com’s list of children’s best-sellers; they are listed in order of popularity.

Books on cliques

1. Cliques, Phonies, & Other Baloney by Trevor Romain (Ages 9-12)
2. Mean Chicks, Cliques, and Dirty Tricks: A Real Girl’s Guide to Getting Through the Day with Smarts and Style by Erika V. Shearin Karres (Young adult)
3. The Clique #8: Sealed with a Diss: A Clique Novel by Lisi Harrison (Young adult)
4. The Clique #11: Boys R Us by Lisi Harrison (Young adult)
5. Coping With Cliques: A Workbook to Help Girls Deal With Gossip, Put-downs, Bullying & Other Mean Behavior by Susan Sprague (Young adult)
6. Moby Clique (Bard Academy) by Cara Lockwood (Young adult)
7. A Leader’s Guide to the Courage to Be Yourself: True Stories by Teens about Cliques, Conflicts, and Overcoming Teen Pressure by Al Desetta, Sherrie Gammage, and Educators for Social Responsibility (Young adult)
8. Girl Politics: Friends, Cliques, and Really Mean Chicks (Faithgirlz!) by Nancy N. Rue (Ages 9-12)