The ways in which we identify ourselves are constantly evolving. Growing up under the supervision of our parents, our basic values were determined by where we lived, our ethnic or religious backgrounds and the communities in which we were brought up. I followed the customs my family carried out because those were the habits by which I was raised. Those customs were not individual choices that I regarded as essential to my identity; rather, they were the elements of my life I took for granted.

As college students, we can maintain or shed the customs instilled within us as children. We have the empowering opportunity to define and reshape our identities. In an environment like Duke where the population is much more heterogeneous than the town in which I grew up, I have begun to think more introspectively about what elements of my background actually mean something to me. I have found that when someone disregards or minimizes the values I once took for granted, their real significance to me emerges.

I was raised Jewish. I felt connected to the culture and community of Judaism because my grandfather was a Holocaust survivor, but growing up, I never felt a strong connection to the rituals of the religion itself. Although I didn’t actively dislike going to temple, I regarded it with indifference. Each Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year in the Jewish religion, I followed the example my parents set by fasting and attending services alongside them. I complained about my hunger and snuck Goldfish and cheese sticks from my mother’s purse while sauntering off to socialize with friends.

This year, one of my midterm exams was scheduled on the morning after Yom Kippur. I asked the professor if she could arrange for me to take the test earlier or later so I could observe the holiday during the day leading up to the exam. I was surprised by her lack of empathy and the firm resolution that she could not agree to a makeup date. Although annoyed by her obstinacy, I eventually reasoned that I could neither take the entire day off before an exam nor pore over notes and books while fasting. Unless I skipped the test, which I briefly considered but decided against, I would not be able to observe the holiday this year.

I attended a Kol Nidre service the evening before the holiday during which the rabbi gave a speech explaining the fundamental purpose of Yom Kippur. She described the importance of taking this day off from our hectic lives to reflect on the past year and contemplate how we seek to change as individuals. The more she talked, the more I realized that I really wanted this day to take a breather and think about myself. With a fast-paced schedule full of constant obligations—the norm for most Duke students—utilizing this time would force me to attain the introspection and relaxation I needed.

I resented the fact that I could not have that, even for one day of the year. Only when this ability was taken away did I fully acknowledge the importance this previously obligatory custom holds to me. Now that I am an independent adult living my own life, I consider this religious connection—which had never before been threatened—to be a significant component of my identity. It is an active choice no longer upheld by default or habit.

We often take for granted the elements of life we grow up with when those who surround us lead similar lifestyles. After entering an environment in which everyone’s background differs, we are pushed to examine how our past customs define us and whether we even want them to define us as we move forward. Sometimes, we must first encounter something that challenges these facets of our lives in order to illuminate the choices we want to make. Furthermore, we must consider others whose beliefs are even less common or understood, who might even be met with hostility within their communities. When we individually experience behavior like this, should we accept it? If the cause is important enough to us, will we take action? Imperative personal choices push us to determine where these lines are drawn and which issues we are willing to fight for.

The evolution and development of our identities is not about slapping on labels and affiliations to characterize or shape the way others perceive us. No matter what our customs, beliefs or backgrounds may be, our sense of self-perception boils down to how we internalize these elements of our identities and make informed, independent decisions about what we value. College is supposed to be four years jam-packed with a myriad of experiences that mold and hone our identities. These experiences help us to distinguish what principles we believe are important and the lengths to which we will go in order to protect them.

These assertions likely will change again soon as we venture through our college experience and adult lives. The mirror in which we view ourselves is ever evolving; what matters is that we pay attention to what it reflects.

Carly Stern is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs on alternate Fridays.