Finding identity

Helping teens find their unique voice despite peer pressure and outside influences.

By Chris Avery

Recently, Steppingstone Scholars Inc. cosponsored the annual Step Into College Conference, which provides college readiness and access workshops for parents and students across the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. With hundreds of parents and students present, Mayor Michael Nutter spoke about the importance for students to get involved in their communities and make a difference. He charged them with aspiring for more than volunteering but being unswervingly dedicated to their passions.

As the director of programs for Steppingstone Scholars, I work with a variety of students representing diverse ethnic, religious and national identities. The mission for this Philadelphia-based organization is centered on creating academic access opportunities for students from underserved communities. While the students may all have clear differences, they are bound by their desire to defy the odds of their circumstances and have a brighter academic future.


However, it can be difficult to hear these scholars speak about their experiences in their classrooms and their communities. They talk about the lack of acceptance for their differences in both settings. However, their school environment often is the most difficult to navigate. When we met with high school young men during one of our male affinity group sessions, we asked them about their identity and where it is reinforced. Most of them spoke about their home and their neighborhood.

Unfortunately, they often did not see their school setting as a location where they could be themselves or where they were supported to grow into who they hoped to be. Considering the abundance of news cycles detailing celebrity gossip and congressional gridlock, it becomes difficult to find the discourse about our students and opportunities for them to determine their own identity. Too often, our differences are used to divide us, rather than being seen as an opportunity to unite us.

Adults need to engage at a level deeper than dropping in, imparting wisdom and returning to their work and families.

Finding acceptance

When asked to define identity, one of the scholars described it as “who I am when no else is around.” When asked to explain, he said that much of his identity in school is a mask consisting of learned responses and behaviors. Ultimately, he hoped he could be himself whenever he could get to college. As I reflected on his comments, I thought about my own experiences of school, and honestly recognized how often I too went through the motions or buried whom I was to assimilate or hide.

As I facilitated the conversation, I witnessed the vital importance of acceptance. The men of the group were offering their time on a Saturday afternoon to connect with high school young men from a variety of Philadelphia’s schools, who were unified by the circumstances of their backgrounds. When given voice, the scholars spoke about their passions to achieve their aspirations. They received advice about potential pathways to achieve their dreams and pledges of support for mentoring along the way. This discourse is only a step toward creating the vision for a society where students with the potential and a community of support are prepared for academic success and social mobility, regardless of their financial circumstances.

They also described how their identities were constantly barraged by media perceptions, peer pressure and family messages. They detailed powerful stories about overcoming disparaging remarks about who they were from a variety of sources, including members of their various identity groups. From micro-aggressions to ambivalence, they recounted their experiences and how they aspired for more acceptance within their communities.

When asked to speak about their identities, nearly every scholar present asked, ‘My identity or the one others think I have?’  This appears to be at the core of the problem. Too often they had trouble recognizing where messages from others stopped and their identity began. When asked how they would fix this, they articulated how they needed space like the ones on that Saturday afternoon to have these conversations where they could explore who they were and be respected in the process. While they did not walk away with all the answers, they did leave with a greater understanding of their shared experiences and with a greater cadre of supporters and mentors.

Respecting the identity of others, rather than imposing one’s views or perceptions on them can be difficult. When pressed, most of us can rattle off a myriad of stereotypes and perceptions about different races, ethnicities and identities. Even young children can recite many of those messages and too often internalize them.

Breaking the cycle

We must continually challenge our perspectives and be willing to admit that we do see difference. Too often, we shade our biases by not being honest with ourselves regarding our views of “other.” We need to turn these internal dialogues into peer-to-peer or group discussions to allow ourselves to overcome the limiting perspectives of indulging others rather than accepting or even celebrating them. Teaching equity rather than blindness respectfully embraces our differences instead of mistakenly pretending that they do not exist.

Reflecting on the words of the scholars, they spoke about how rarely their peers from their various schools entered each other’s homes or interacted authentically outside of school. Rather, they simply shared classroom space. This issue must be addressed, and pathways for expression have to be provided for students to express and celebrate their identity in a variety of ways. Rather than a multicultural day or volunteering at a soup kitchen, students need authentic, ongoing experiences where they are in classroom discussions about themselves and how they relate to their texts and after-school programs that allow them to follow their passions.

Adults need to engage at a level deeper than dropping in, imparting wisdom and returning to their work and families. Ongoing engagement that includes their families is key to exacting community change and growth. Steppingstone Scholars Inc. works to facilitate those experiences with workshops, mentoring and tutoring opportunities. How are you engaged in these conversations and turning them into action? How powerful of a society would it be to have individuals be the same individual they hope to be even when others are around?



Chris Avery is the director of programs for Steppingstone Scholars, a nonprofit dedicated to creating college access for students from underserved communities. Avery brings an extensive understanding of the challenges that Steppingstone’s Scholars and families face every day, and knowledge of how to navigate Philadelphia’s complex landscape of school choice while working to build high-quality academic enrichment programs that prepare students for college success and leadership in society. He also serves as the vice president of Strategic Planning for TurningSTONE choice, a nonprofit that focuses on building choice making and critical thinking skills in students. He serves as a facilitator for the (US) National Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity (SEED) Project and has authored several works including “Angst,” a novel about navigating high school. Recently, Avery was a recipient of the Teaching Tolerance: Teacher of the Year Award due to his dedication to improving education and better preparing students for the diverse world they face. He earned his BA at the University of Virginia in both Foreign Affairs and African Studies and went on to earn a Masters of Education in School Leadership at the University of Pennsylvania.


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