Self-esteem and the Miami Image

It has often been observed, whether accurately or not, that Miami is a very image conscious institution. The staff of the Student Counseling Service are frequently struck by the powerful impact that various perceptions of "image" have on the esteem, identity, and often actual functioning of individual students, at times to their detriment. We have pondered the remarkable durability of this effect even in the face of the reality that very few individuals subjectively believe they match that image. We now can report some recent data from graduating seniors (graduated May, 1999) that in fact points to the powerful perceptions that students have about the "Miami image," yet how relatively few believe they fit the image.

The 1999 College Student Survey (CSS) was developed and administered by the Student Affairs Assessment Committee. The survey asks graduating students for typical demographic data such as their grade point average, ethnicity, and college major. In addition, students are asked about their personal habits and perceptions. Some of the areas covered in the survey include, but are not limited to, the amount of time students spent on the internet, engaged in community service, discussed politics, their experiences with various departments and offices across the university, if they have smoked cigarettes, used alcohol, and how easy or difficult they felt it was to meet the academic expectations of their professors. For the 1999 survey, two questions were added that specifically addressed students' perceptions of image.

One question stated: "I believe there is a 'Miami image' that students, in their appearance, dress, and behavior, conform to on this campus." Of the 526 students (mostly Caucasian women) who responded, 67.7% agreed strongly with this statement and another 29.3% agreed somewhat. It is noteworthy, however, how this same group of 526 students responded to the very next question which asked: "To what extent do you feel you fit that Miami image?" Only 15.4% felt they fit the image to a considerable extent and 41.8% felt they fit the image somewhat. Therefore, in summary, we have 97% of our graduating students agreeing strongly or somewhat that a "Miami Image" does exist, yet only approximately 57% believe they fit that image. And, recall that a mere 15.4% felt they fit the image to a considerable extent.

So what does this mean for the mental health of our students vis a vis the Miami image? The data would certainly seem to suggest that there is quite strong agreement in the existence of a Miami image in appearance, dress, and behavior, but a significant number of students feel that they only fit that image somewhat or slightly, and some feel they do not fit the image at all. When there are strong perceptions of what it takes to "fit in" and some do not assess themselves as possessing those qualities this contributes to problems with self-esteem, identity, anxiety, and depression. This should concern all of us that are a part of this community. We at Student Counseling and within the division of Student Affairs invite your comments and questions about this important issue. We publish this data as a "wake up call" for change. We need to reflect more accurately who Miami students really are today, and indeed who we are as the Miami community.