It is Thomn with an H and an N: A Story of Self Authorship
Colorado State University
“sometimes you have to hang with the Buddha to find your soul” (T. Bell)
Kegan (1994) defined self-authorship as a concept whereby the individual develops beliefs, relates abstractions, invents values, and acts on interpersonal loyalties as well as intrapersonal states (as cited by Baxter Magolda, 2008). For me, this began unknowingly at the age of 13 with a small act of defiance. It began by the addition of two letters to my name. From that point on, I began spelling Tom, T-h-o-m-n. It was not meant as disrespect to my namesake, as both my father and grandfather share the same name. Rather it was an opportunity to begin to express my own identity. This particular act was symbolic in nature as I still followed the path my parents provided and acted compliant with other authority figures. In reflection I like to believe this was one of two major building blocks that laid the foundation for me to build my character and identity.
The second major pre-college moment resembled more of an internal shift. I grew up Catholic and was very involved in the church. At one point I thought maybe I would make a decent priest. Being a member of the church community helped me develop a sense of belonging, and a foundation of beliefs about life at a young age. At the age of 17 however, things began to shift. I read the book Siddhartha by Herman Hess. This led to a process of attempting to understand how different religions, theological expressions, and philosophical foundations of life vary across the world. The impact was profound. I began to question how people could believe salvation could only come from one particular religion or belief system. This sense of attempting to understand piqued my interest in areas of justice as well. I also struggled with the concept of a capital T approach to truth, as it seemed that truth was somewhat relative. I was in no position to act, but I did make the conscious decision to walk away from Catholic teachings and begin to embrace a more spiritual and soulful approach to life.
These two events, while early in my personal development, represent significant shifts in external identity and internal belief structures. Throughout this paper, I will explore five years of my undergraduate experience and analyze my own development using Baxter Magolda’s theory of self-authorship. Baxter Magolda (2001) discusses the concept of self-authorship as a practice for understanding the construction of cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal elements (as cited by Evans, et. al., 2010). Baxter Magolda’s work include four phases of self-authorship which include: following formulas, the Crossroads, becoming the author of one’s life, and internal foundation (Baxter Magolda, 2012). In addition to highlighting my experience, I will be using music lyrics and song to help tell my story. Music has been an integral part of my life experience. I have always felt a strong connection to both playing and listening to music, so I figured it would be interesting to integrate songs by various artists to help tell my story.
Following the plan
“Once there was a time where I could control myself”(Pearl Jam, 1991), “Sideways falling all will be revealed my friend” (Red Hot Chili Peppers, 2002), “in your fathers steps, just do what is done unto you” (Guster, 2000)
From a very young age I was told that I will go to college and get a good job. This path was ingrained in my upbringing, and it was one I never questioned. Neither of my parents completed a four year degree, however they valued what they believed a college education could bring, a good paying job. After high school I did not understand there were other options beyond college. Although my parents were very supportive of me attending college, neither completed a degree which led to lack of preparation and understanding of the undergraduate experience. I applied to only one university, which happened to be far enough away from where I grew up to get away, but not too far in that I could not drive home. I never visited the institution, and did not know much about the university, but I was following the path laid out for me.
My first year at university was somewhat successful. I went to class, most of the time, and did relatively well, aside for a C+ in a survey theatre course. I even got involved in student government. While in high school, I started to see the need for advocacy, and this translated to my involvement on campus. However, at this point I did not quite understand advocacy needed to be for those that had limited access.
Even though I was going to college, I would often find myself limiting authentic engagement with peers and going home on the weekends. I was dating a woman who still lived in my hometown, so it made sense at the time to go home most weekends. In reflection, I missed out on a great deal of opportunities to engage and interact with peers because I was focused on trying to sustain a life at college and at home. My stepmom challenged me at one point and asked, what do you consider to be home? She was attempting to engage in a conversation about why I was not planting new roots and not staying at school over the weekends. I did not pay much attention to her, and instead of reflecting on the question, ignored her and kept on acting the same way I had.
I moved home for the summer and when my second year began, I found that I was not really spending much time examining my life or career trajectory. Instead, I was simply following the same routine of going to class during the week, and then spending most of the weekends away from campus. I was involved on campus but I had not yet started to internalize or comprehend my interactions with others.
I was still relying on authority and the external world to assist in my meaning making experiences. While I was able to internalize some elements and connection to others, most of my actions reflected very little awareness to how I was actually interpreting life. Using Baxter Magolda’s theory, I was in the early portion of the continuum of self-authorship or in Phase 1 (Baxter Magolda, 2012). According to Kegan I was “uncritically accepting values, beliefs, [and] interpersonal loyalties” (as cited by Baxter Magolda, 2012). In examining the three elements: the cognitive, intrapersonal, interpersonal (as cited by Evans, et. al., 2010), it seemed my main focus at the time was the cognitive understanding of how do I know. Most of this was spent “getting” information from faculty and not internalizing the information, but rather storing the information to later be regurgitated when the time was appropriate. Freire (1968) refers to this as the banking method. Essentially, I was not yet an active part of my learning experience. I was defining myself by the activities rather than who I was. For example, I was a member of the student government, but I spent little time understanding how my identities projected to others. Finally, I did not spend much time understanding the construct of relationships, I followed guidelines, acted polite, and attempted to befriend individuals when it was convenient without going out of my way to make meaningful relationships.
I slowly started to realize, that I was not happy. I began having anxiety issues, and not meeting my own academic standards. I also found myself struggling with material and content that I previously enjoyed. I started to realize maybe I need to lose myself, fall a little sideways, and say goodbye to the person that I used to be. To put it in Baxter Magolda’s language, I was entering the Crossroads.
“How long will I slide” (Red Hot Chili Peppers, 1999), “Once you take a look inside that is where you will find your piece of
mind” (Formerly Known, 2001), “itwill be so much clearer once I put you in my review mirror” (Pearl Jam, 1993)
The Crossroads are a process whereby individuals begin to question external authority and process tension between internal voices and external influences Baxter Magolda (2012). I realized that not only was I not making meaning out of my experience, I was going through simplistic motions without engaging myself along the way. I started to realize that I needed to begin to own my experience.
The first step in owning my experience came when I decided not to move home over the summer. Additionally, my long-term relationship had recently ended and I began to get more intentionally involved on campus. I began to develop more personal and purposeful relationships with peers, and started to incongruence between my actions and values. Finally, I started to play to music again. This served as an outlet of expression and an opportunity to connect with others.
I attribute some of the movement through the Crossroads to taking a leadership role in student government during my second year. This provided an opportunity for me to see authority in a different light. Additionally, some of my movement through the Crossroads can also be contributed to difficult personal situations. For example, over the summer of that year, my dad was diagnosed with kidney cancer. My father, who I adored as child and whom I felt was invincible, was now very much mortal. We rarely ever argued nor did we ever fight, however he was not a fan of the long-term relationship I had been in. He was relieved when he learned the relationship had ended. However, for the first time in my life I went against his wishes, and began dating the same woman again within 6 months of the relationship ending.
Looking back, this was rather foolish and lacked rational thought. However, it was an act of taking ownership and in some regard defying authority. In an attempt to solidify my relationship, I decided it was a good idea to get engaged at the ripe age of 20 years old. When I told my father about the engagement, he looked at me and said “well, I hope you are happy, goodnight” (personal communication, 2001). Much like my father predicted, the relationship fell apart within weeks, and I was again alone trying to understand who I was, how I related to others, and how to construct knowledge.
In this particular phase of my life, I began to question authority, deconstruct what I was learning in school and attempt to make meaning out of it. I solidified my interests in certain subjects, and I became increasingly aware of politics and issues of justice. There was still an egocentric focus on these issues, but I started to understand how oppression occurred at the systematic level and at times how I was a part of the various systems that perpetuated the lack of justice. I was beginning to trust my inner voice and accept my talents, but those elements often got challenged, and I often retreated back to a comfortable space. I slowly started building on the foundation I developed at the end of high school, but I was still a work in progress.
Facing a difficult breakup and dealing with my father’s cancer were not the only major events that lead my way through the Crossroads phase in my life. Three days before my engagement ended, three airplanes collided into buildings on United States soil and a fourth crashed not making it to the specified target. This event catapulted me to the other side of the crossroads, helped me understand how to start looking at difference, and put my old beliefs in the rearview mirror. Essentially, as Baxeter Magolda would say I began to “listen and interpret while cultivating my inner voice” (2012, 19).
Cultivating My Inner Voice
“Learning to walk again” Foo Fighters, 2011), “lately I am beginning to find when I drive myself my light is found” (Incubus, 2003), “You can’t be neutral on a moving train”(Zinn, 2002)
September 11, 2001 would forever change the way in which citizens of the United States would view their safety and understanding of the world. For me it was an event that started to conjure thoughts of a draft, a never ending war, but most of all a sense of connectedness to those throughout the country. It pushed me to understand different perspectives and challenged all that I knew to be true about life.
The third phase of self-authorship is becoming the author of one’s life (as cited by Evans, et. al., 2010). This phase focuses on the ability to “choose one’s beliefs and stand up for them in the face of conflicting external viewpoints” (as cited by Evans, et. al., 2010, 186). Additionally, in this phase individuals begin living out their belief systems and build authentic relationships that support the belief systems (Baxter Magold, 2012).
In the wake of September 11, 2001 my best friend at the time and I began to try to make meaning out of the events. We organized opportunities for students to engage in discussions and provided campus wide outlets for individuals to connect with those directly impacted by the tragedies in Washington D.C and New York City. Throughout this experience, there seemed to be a great deal of anti-Muslim sentiment rising on our campus. I started to become grounded in my value of justice spoke and out against these acts of aggression.
In addition, I also began to attend protests related to various human rights issues. One in particular required me to stand outside of the administration building with a bag over my head to symbolize the universities contractual relationships with organizations that disallowed unions. Additionally, I began to explore issues of race and racism and felt a sense of duty to engage in these issues. At the time, Affirmative Action was being challenged, and so I along with a few others organized opportunities for students to travel to the hearings and rallies to support Affirmative Action efforts.
Using Baxter Magolda’s framework, I was starting to use my own lens in construction of knowledge, interpret the knowledge, and make meaning for myself (Baxter Magolda, 2008). Additionally, I was developing a sense of core beliefs that involved social justice, equity, and fairness for all. Additionally, I began to develop a core group of friends that supported these values. I was challenging my parents on issues we disagreed on, and instead of retreating we had discussions that were fruitful and engaging.
I realized for the first time in my life, that as Howard Zinn (1968) stated, “you cannot be neutral on moving train”. I started to take a stance on issues, and most importantly I started experience life. On a whim, I made the decision that I was going to study abroad for the summer, and experience life on a different continent. While I was in Australia I studied urban planning a concept that I had never thought about much prior to that experience. I was embracing experiences and cultivating relationships. Metaphorically speaking I learned, sometimes you just have teach yourself how to walk again and take control of the wheel and drive.
“the world I love the trains I hop to be part of the wave it can’t stop” (Red Hot Chili Peppers, 2002), “I’m working on a dream” (Bruce Springsteen, 2010), “let me live so when it is time to die, even the reaper cries” (Red Hot Chili Peppers, 2010).
When I returned from Australia, I had a new sense of confidence and accomplishment. I left everything I behind for 2 months to travel with 15 strangers in another country. While studying in Australia I built relationships, studied new topics, explored a country, and went skydiving. I began my fourth year of college working as a multicultural assistant and serving as Student Body President. In addition, it was at this time I began writing my own story for life. I changed my career path and decided to apply to graduate school and study Student Affairs and Higher Education.
At first my parents were not supportive of this change in life direction. They both believed you go to college to get a job, not that you go to college to go back to college some more. I spent some time having conversations with them about my life goals, and they being supportive parents, went along with my decisions. Over the course of the next year I spent my time taking independent studies and learning about everything and anything I could. I could have graduated much sooner than I did, but I wanted learn more and try new things.
Baxter Magolda (2012), found that most people in this phase do well with ambiguity and find stability in understanding their direction. Additionally, individuals “trust their own feelings and act on them rationally” (as cited by Evans, et. al., 2010, p 186). My decision to make a career change was based on multiple beliefs, but ultimately it was because I believed that working in higher education best suited my talents, skills, and ambitions. It was a rationale decision based on how I felt I could best make an impact on the world.
In addition to my career pursuits, I also started understanding what I wanted in a life partner. I met Christina, my current partner, at this time. Although dating her at the time presented some interesting complications, I trusted my instincts and pursued the relationship. Our relationship, like most, has seen high points and low points, but all in all, she is just as much part of my life story as anything else. I imagine had I met her in any other phase in my life, the relationship might not have survived.
In between my fourth and fifth year of college, I ended up in the hospital and needed to have emergency surgery. At the time, I was in significant pain as my internal organs began to shut down due to a significant infection I had in my intestines. This experience taught me that it is okay to be reliant on self, but also sometimes you have to lean on others. In addition, this helped me internalize just how precious life is. According to Baxter Magolda (2001), it is in the self-authorship phase the individuals at times find spirituality (as cited by Evans, et. al., 2010). I started to reconnect to the spirituality that began my journey four years prior with the Siddhartha book. While I did not return to my Catholic roots, I started to embrace a stronger sense of connectedness to something bigger than myself. I began to embrace that each day is a gift and I was privileged to have the opportunities and access to not simply choose a life, but to live one.
“Let your light shine, let your love show” (Mo, 2007), “We will drink and dance with one hand free” (Winwood, 1986), “does it go from east to west, a body free is a body less” (Red Hot Chili Peppers, 2010)
“You don’t choose a life, you live one” (Estevez, 2013), one of the many sayings that I am embrace and attempt to live by. I view every day as a journey, and an opportunity to make a difference. Since leaving college I have had many experiences that have tested every fiber of my being. The most significant being the death of my father in 2010. He was a huge and very significant influence on my life. His passing shook me to my core, and at one point I was sure that I was losing my way. It took time, a great deal of reflection, and an incredible amount of support from Christina and others to put myself back together. Ultimately, in reflection, it was being there at the moment he passed, that to this day allows me to cope with the loss. I accept the fact that I will never “get over it”, but I also accept the fact that I cannot change what has happened.
Every day I experience a continuance of self-authorship. Making the decision to apply to this program is another example of my efforts to continuously confirm and redefine my own sense of self. I enjoy embracing new challenges, and never settling for the known. In 2013, Christina and I took pilgrimage in Spain. We hiked over 300 Kilometers to Santiago De Compestela. In part, this was an individual journey, but it also was a journey that we shared together. It provided time for us to reflect on several things, such as my father’s passing, our issues with infertility, and our overall happiness and satisfaction with life. Christina and I were close before we went on this trip, but the experience helped us begin to co-author our experiences in life. We both have successful careers, and lead individual lives. However, we are connected in a way, I believe, creates a sense of co-authorship in each other’s experience. I believe that Baxter Magolda’s work, while important for the individual, misses out on one of the most important elements of self-authorship. I believe there is a process of co-authorship, in which two individuals allow themselves to become vulnerable and connect with one another on such an intimate level that the individual experiences becomes a “co-authored” shared experience. Additionally, this concept fosters healthy relationship expectations that encourage growth and support for the individual and the partnership so they are able to be as one while pursuing their own and shared life dreams and goals. In reflection, I have learned in times of great vulnerability, one becomes able to truly understand their core identity. There is a not a way in which one can reflect a more vulnerable state, than to completely share their life with someone else. I look forward to the experiences that lie ahead and in the words of fake President Jeb Bartlet, “What’s Next”.
Baxter Magolda, M. B. & King, P. M. (2012). Assessing meaning making and self
authorship: Theory, research, and application. ASHE Higher Education Report,
38(3), 1-20. Retrieved from
Baxter Magolda, M. B. (2008). Three elements of self authorship. Journal of College
Student Development, 49(4), 269-284. Retrieved from
Evans, N. J., Forney, D. S., Guido, F. M., Patton, L. D., & Renn, K. A. (2010). Student
Development in College: Theory, Research, and Practice (2nd ed.). San Francisco,
CA: John Wiley & Sons
Freire, P. (1968). The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum