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Authentic Eagles: Jenelle McNeill On Identity

As Boston College students, it can be tempting to hide our struggles in the constant quest to appear perfect. Embracing our truths can help us to understand ourselves and experience the world around us as genuinely as possible. Authentic Eagles is a series that gives a voice to the people who have experienced firsthand the trials and tribulations of being one’s authentic self at BC.

Jenelle McNeill, A&S ’14

When I first arrived at Boston College, I was overwhelmed and inspired by everyone around me. I was sure they had it all figured out, knew who they were, where they were going and who they hoped to become over the next four years. I, on the other hand, was lost. Did I want to major in political science or should I have applied to CSOM? Did I miss the boat on all the worthwhile clubs and organizations? If only I knew how to sing, or dance. How does everyone already have so many friends? These were the questions that plagued those first few months of my freshman year. My insecurities and uncertainties were running rampant. Rather than reflect on the answers to these questions, I found ways to fly under the radar that first year. I made friends in time and I joined a few clubs. I never learned to sing, or dance, but I left freshman year relatively content with my ability to “fit in.”

But admittedly, I spent that the first year, and most of the two that followed, without my own identity. Instead of searching for answers to the questions that went unanswered my freshman year, I was content to be someone’s friend, girlfriend, roommate, classmate, and they seemed willing to share bits of their identities with me. My best friend Jenna gave me her confidence, her power and self-assuredness, and in doing so helped me make friends. My roommate Kelley shared her positivity, her sunshine, her love and  taught me about compassion. My friends Christie and Catherine showed me how to be a good listener, a role model. My roommates, fellow Arrupe-El Salvador participants and 4Boston volunteers lent me their openness and love for community. The list of wonderful people that shared themselves with me goes on and on... Taking bits and pieces from each of these people gave me a sense of identity, helped me piece together a personality, a humanity that I thought was my own. But it was not.

Instead of defining myself those first few years at BC, I remained complacent in my borrowed identities. But in retrospect, this time in my life was still plagued with the same social anxieties, stress, and confusion from the beginning of freshman year. I struggled to identify which part of myself I wanted to embody each day and in which situations. With my roommates I tried to be most myself, but even then I never felt entirely genuine. At Arrupe and 4Boston reflections, I knew when to share and when to be quiet and I survived most of my sophomore year without really opening up. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my lack of identity and my reliance on the personalities of those around me to define myself was inhibiting me from developing more authentic relationships. Because I wasn’t entirely sure of who I was, I kept almost everyone else at a distance.

But then, I went abroad. I know that studying abroad is a hugely commonplace activity for BC students, but for me this was a fundamentally earth-shattering decision. I live 40 minutes from BC, I see my parents at least twice a month (if not more), my entire extended family lives within the borders of Massachusetts and I count my cousins as my closest friends. No one in my family had ever studied abroad so none of us knew what to expect. As my semester in Spain drew closer, I grew more terrified, my mom grew sullen, and my dad worrisome. My grandfather spent hours researching the Spanish economy and crime rates, my aunt opened a new bank account to ensure I got the best Dollar-Euro exchange rate, and I packed (and repacked) my suitcase, fearful I would forget something essential. Preparing me for this journey was a family affair and everyone had a say in what I needed to bring, everyone had a copy of my flight itinerary and everyone came to say goodbye, wish me luck, or slip me a 20 dollar bill—just in case (I didn’t have the heart to explain euros to my Grampy).

So when I touched down in Spain on January 7, 2013 and almost immediately burst into tears, called my parents and demanded they book me a flight back to the States, it shattered the strong resolve that everyone had built up to help me prepare. Almost instantly, I realized that away from my friends, roommates and family, away from BC and my hometown, I didn’t know who I was anymore. I was separated from the confidence and joy I stole from my best friends everyday and far from the security of my family. Not only was I homesick, but I felt identity-less. Rather than tackle this head on, I threw myself into my life abroad. Rather than address how empty I felt, I let the beauty of Granada, the Spanish language and my hilariously unique host family fill me up every day. Yes, I was still struggling with homesickness, and yes my parents anxiously checked in on me, but I really felt like I was doing better.

But gradually, and then all at once, my long-distance relationship ended and with it, one more piece of my carefully cultivated “identity” faded away. In losing my “girlfriend” title, I was now homesick and heartbroken. I struggled to handle the stress of a breakup in a foreign country, particularly finding the words to explain it to a host mom who spoke little English and was convinced my sniffly nose and teary eyes were the signs of a spring cold. But without this experience I may never have been forced to recognize my borrowed identity. With the loss of my “girlfriend” title, I quickly realized that my self-conception as “Jenna’s friend” or “Kelley’s roommate” was quite literally foreign to my Spanish surroundings. In Granada I had new friends, new family, a new language and a new home. While this environment terrified me to the point of tears when I landed in January, by the end of March I was able to recognize what a beautiful opportunity I had been given. The physical distance from all that I knew and loved, and the loss of relationships I cherished, opened my eyes to my unanswered “Who Am I?” question. The question I had ignored since freshman year.

My identity had been on loan for so long that I had never realized how deeply this had affected me. But gradually, with the help of these new friends, new language, and new family, I was able to piece together bits of myself that had gone unnoticed for far too long. While hiking through the hills of Sacromonte, I discovered that I see God most strongly in nature; while meeting new people, I recognized that I’m reticent in large groups and prefer connecting with others in smaller settings. When given the opportunity to take a step back from the rigor of a BC course load, I recognized how highly I value my intelligence, but given the choice, I would prioritize a day drinking coffee with a friend over a day in the library. The physical separation from home showed me how strongly I value my family, even if I had never actively realized it, and that my mom is truly my best friend. I learned that I communicate better in writing and that the sure-fire way for me to kick a bad mood, a bout of homesickness or even heartbreak, is a Luke Bryan CD.

Having spent so much time and energy adopting and borrowing identities from those around me, never pausing to consider how little I knew about myself, I finally feel secure in the small bits of identity I can officially call my own. As a graduating senior, I am far from the girl that first came to Boston College, or even the girl that left for Spain last January. I have spent the past year and a half working to shed the insecurity that came with spending so much of my time here without my own personality and the process has not been easy. In all honesty, I owe much of my newfound sense of self and confidence to the support of the same friends that lent me their identities for so long. Begrudgingly, they agree to be seen with me when I wear my 5 euro Chicken suit and jean overalls every chance I get and they’ve willingly danced beside me as I have shed my insecurities about busting a move despite an embarrassing lack of rhythm (so bad in fact that I cannot even clap along to the beat of a song). They support my country music addiction, my love for Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and the fact that I still work at the Quonset Hut. They even retreat to Danvers with me on weekends when I’m homesick. Two years ago I defined myself relative to my friends and classmates, my home and my family. These people and places have now become a part of my personality and have deeply contributed to the person I am today, but my identity is my own. In leaving behind the security of borrowed identities—in literally getting on a plane and flying away from these shared personalities—I found myself.

Two weeks ago in a 4Boston reflection, my all-star leader challenged us to answer the following three questions: “Who am I?,” “Who do I want to be?,” “Who do I think I should be?” For the first time in four years, I felt sincere as I reflected on my answers. For the first time in four years, I had an identity of my own to reflect on, to grow into, to grow with. As I sat there surrounded by a 4Boston group I have grown to love so genuinely, that I feel like I have shared so much of myself with, I realized that despite the difficult process of building and rebuilding an identity from scratch was well worth the struggle. Who I am and who I want to be change daily, but I am now confident that I make those decisions for myself.