Impostor everywhere

A fraud among the green

The news that I had been accepted into Brown hit me hard, and I was still processing it well into the summer before my first year of college. After getting in, I never went a day without being congratulated or mentioned as the “Girl Who Got Into an Ivy League.” It was a big deal at my public high school, which, for the most part, made headlines only when the newspapers decided to feature the underdogs.

It didn’t occur to me right away that I was going to be surrounded by brilliant minds from all over the world. I didn’t realize that I was going to feel so small once I got on campus. Now, a few weeks into the school year, I’ve learned that like everything else in college, my impostor syndrome has amplified. I can’t help feeling like I am a fraud in a crowd of genuinely intelligent and driven people, as if all my previous successes are nothing more than smudged ink on a less-than-honest résumé.

There is no shortage of self-defeating talk among the freshmen here, especially since classes have started. Though it’s a relief to know that I’m not alone in feeling like I cheated my way into the school, hearing others discuss their insecurities made me more aware of all the troubling views students hold about themselves and their peers.

When I decided to interview some of my classmates, many of them said that their lack of confidence in their abilities and accomplishments stemmed from comparing themselves to other students at Brown. While talking with Justin Voelker ‘21, I discovered that he felt unimpressive next to our friend Elliott Lehrer ‘21. Though he pursues a lot of his own interests and is competent at what he does, after hearing about Elliott’s documentary on the Syrian migrant crisis or his model rocket propellant engine designs, Voelkner’s response was, “I just feel like I haven’t done enough.”

When I brought this point up to Lehrer, he told me that he doesn’t think he is any smarter or more talented than anyone else here. “I think I just chose to spend my time differently. I just happened to seek or look for opportunities to do things I was interested in, and I did them. I think everyone at Brown absolutely has the capability to do these things too; they just happened to have chosen to do different things,” he said.

To Lehrer, it is more about getting your foot in the door than necessarily being gifted at what you do. But it’s not always easy. I interviewed Amber York ‘21, who mentioned that financial means and access to opportunities were both reasons why she doesn’t feel as successful as other students. “I feel like something that adds to impostor syndrome is wealth. If you have more wealth, there’s a higher chance of you doing something like [research projects]. But when you live in an impoverished area, you have to work for your family, you don’t have time to make a non-profit for other people or visit 40 other countries, because you’re more worried about whether or not you can feed your family,” York said. She also felt that because she came from a low-income community and did not have the chance to go to a school with strong academics, her test scores suffered. “Brown was my reach school because my scores fell in Brown’s 25th percentile. And coming here, everyone had perfect scores,” York said.

George Daccache, a first-year who had started school in America but moved to Lebanon before high school for family reasons, added that some people don’t even have the chance to procure certain test scores, especially if they went to an international school. “I took 2 AP tests because my school didn’t offer any [AP classes],” he said. Not only that, but there was also a scarcity of clubs, honor societies, and other extracurricular programs where he went to school in Lebanon. “I felt like an impostor after I got accepted to Brown mostly because I would then compare myself to people who stayed [in America] for high school. It wasn’t a valid comparison because I didn’t have the same resources, but it still makes me think that, objectively speaking, I haven’t achieved as much as the average person who goes here,” he explained.

With an influx of students coming from various socioeconomic backgrounds and countries around the world, not everyone is going to feel like they have done enough or worked hard enough to get into Brown. There are people entering college who know more about working long night shifts at the local diner or taking care of siblings while parents are trying to put food on the table than starting their own charities or turning their interests into well-funded research projects. There are people who didn’t have the privilege of an American education, and as a result feel like their own experiences in other countries are lacking, simply because so many opportunities that others had were so out of reach for them. And even though their achievements and efforts are impressive in their own right, because they started out on uneven footing and still managed to work their way up to the same place, it’s difficult to match that with people who are successful in the traditional sense and have a résumé to show for it.

But just because some people have had more chances to explore their strengths and passions than others doesn’t mean that they feel any more adequate about their skills. Celinie Nguyen ‘21 has been to over 40 countries during mission trips to administer health and dental services. In her junior and senior years of high school, she developed a nutrient-based nanocomposite synthetic polymer that served as a hydrogel that could sustain plant growth in dry environments. Nguyen is attending Brown as a PLME student and potential concentrator in cognitive neuroscience, but one of her more concrete goals is to further develop her hydrogel in a lab and to get funding to mass produce it for distribution through nonprofit organizations.

Even though these experiences and plans sound incredible to most, Celinie said her personal achievements stop feeling praiseworthy after she has worked on them for so long. “It kind of becomes a part of you, and you get used to it. It becomes mundane in a way,” she said. Impostor syndrome isn’t exclusive to those who haven’t pursued their own research projects or gone on mission trips—it’s more extensive than that, rooted ultimately not in how others perceive us, but how we perceive ourselves. “Sometimes I do feel bad, but you can’t really dwell on it,” Celinie told me. “At the end of the day, it’s what you do with your education and the connections you make. It all depends on you and how you want to see yourself, and I just guess that’s what college is.”

Another problem arises altogether when some students feel as though they were accepted for reasons other than their personal achievements. Jane* ‘21 was devoted to debate, Model UN, math and science honor societies, as well as a slew of academic teams in high school. She was the president of her school’s Key Club, which worked with other schools throughout Miami to better the community. Jane also took 14 AP classes, acing all but one, in addition to being an IB student. But when she found out that her admissions officer recognized her from her older sister’s application essay, none of that seemed to matter anymore. “I’m not as smart as anyone else. In no way shape or form do I even meet the requirements for going here. I don’t even feel like I got into Brown myself, part of the reason why I got in here is because of my sister. She paved the way. So now, here, I don’t feel like I belong,” Jane told me.

Some athletes feel like they’re out of their element for the same reason, especially if they were accepted here as a recruit. Gus Vannewkirk ‘21, a member of Brown’s varsity crew team, talked to me about his experience during his first reading seminar. “Person from my left was from Singapore—freak genius. Person on my right was from Bangkok—freak genius. Everyone was drawing all these conclusions and connections, and they’re all from crazy places, and I’m just like, ‘Shit.’”

Sydney Cummings ‘21 approaches the matter differently and feels empowered as a recruit, instead of intimidated. She was under a lot of pressure to do well in high school, so in a sense, she didn’t feel like her acceptance was based solely on her place on the soccer team. More than anything, she is impressed with the athletes here. “I have teammates that balance orgo labs and things I couldn’t even fathom taking, and then they come to practices and games and still play their heart out. It makes me feel like there are big expectations, but also that if my teammates can do it, I can too,” she said.

Impostor syndrome seems to pervade multiple aspects of our lives, making us dismissive about everything we’ve ever worked for. But most of the people I talked to told me that, though it’s a feeling they haven’t been able to completely shrug off since even before coming to Brown, there are moments when they can take all they have done at face value and appreciate their talents and hard work. Our insecurities are something we can’t really avoid, and they may be more obvious to us when we’re surrounded by people who seem to highlight all the qualities and experiences we do not have. But how we perceive ourselves should be independent of others, because we pulled our own weight in getting here. And as a word of advice from a senior to all the first-years, Dan Li ‘18 said, “Your place on campus and in the community might not be the same place you occupied in high school, but the most important thing is to be okay with who you are. So if that’s going from being #1 in your class to an average student at Brown—there’s nothing wrong with being an average student at Brown.”

I’ll be honest, these next few months are probably still going to be intimidating to me. It’s a big step from a public high school to an Ivy League institution. The transition isn’t like becoming a small fish in a big pond, but rather being a fish out of water altogether. But regardless of my insecurities, self-doubts, and whatever else is taking the stance as devil’s advocate, I couldn’t be more ready for something new. I think as much as our past achievements have shaped us, being at Brown gives us the potential to achieve so much more. Because no matter how we feel about ourselves, we won’t quit. And that’s the one thing we all have in common.

*name has been changed