I grew up being told that I was destined for great things, that I was Ivy-bound and all those other cliché things that a teenager hears in one of those Lifetime coming-of-age films. When I was accepted into Vassar, I felt that all my hard work had paid off. I had been accepted into a prestigious liberal arts college, after all, and Admissions doesn’t make mistakes, right?
So why, since my acceptance, have I struggled to feel like I belong here?
If anyone can relate, then you are probably familiar with the term “imposter syndrome”—which clouds over your head and is very hard to get rid of, especially when surrounded by all the talented and intelligent students in your classes (who, I should mention, are likely feeling the same way).
Put simply, impostor syndrome is a feeling of not being good enough or not belonging, even though all your efforts and abilities, time and time again, prove otherwise. Yet it’s much deeper than just feeling like you don’t belong, Psychology Today describes it as the inability to internalize accomplishments.
Although prevalent on most college campuses,impostor syndrome is not just confined to these four years of study, or to the world of academics as a whole, but can be present at any point in life. This is worth noting, because a younger version of me believed that as time passed, I’d grow to simply just feel that I belonged. I had watched TED Talks and had conversations with people older than me who had “been there, done that” when it came to grappling with that sense that they were frauds some years ago when they were in college.
I lived vicariously through such stories; they gave me hope that I might wake up one day and feel like a Vassar student instead of just being a student at Vassar. But throughout the very tough academic year I had yet to wake up and feel this sense of belonging. If anything, I was even more convinced that I was not cut out for this school, or perhaps college in general.
I’m sure at least a handful of fellow first-generation students have felt this way at least once in their lives. According to Best Colleges: “For many first-generation students who have worked hard to get to college, imposter syndrome can be a huge obstacle to staying in school and thriving”. As first-generation students at Vassar, not only are we the first (or one of the first) in our households to go to college, we are also going above and beyond to receive the higher level of education that our parents have always dreamed of or once may have dreamt of for themselves. It’s a lot of pressure at times, and there is a sense that everything must always be perfect. An illusion of this may have been seen academically when so many of us were top of our class in high school. This was the case for me, and to be met with my first Bs, Cs and Ds at Vassar made me second guess everything.
Silently, we may think to ourselves: How do I measure up to someone whose parents both went to college and have degrees? Even if we don’t think that, we do manage to be very hard on ourselves for being human and will unfairly compare ourselves to others who seem like they have their lives together.
In reality, no one really has it together and that is okay, the people we compare ourselves to are likely also silently questioning their own academic abilities and how they measure up to everyone else here. Students’ unique backgrounds and experiences heavily impact the ways in which impostor syndrome manifests itself.
As stated before, impostor syndrome is not something that independently exists in college or academia as a whole, but can bleed into many other parts of your life. At its core, this mindset makes it difficult to accept accomplishments and abilities as products of hard work, mixed in with comparisons to the accomplishments and abilities of others.
The expectation that I would simply stop feeling this way over time was lost when I started reaching out to older mentors who had similar roots to my own. In contrast to past stories I had heard about overcoming impostor syndrome, these newer stories seemed more personalized and realistic. The shared experience of being first-generation (and in some cases Latinx as well, which introduced similarities in culture and upbringing) allowed me to view myself from an outside perspective. If I respected my mentors for the challenges they faced in their youth, then why should I not also treat myself with respect for facing very similar challenges? The role models in my life are not perfect and that makes no difference to me, so why am I so hard on myself for not being perfect and for simply being human?
More importantly, said individuals were open about their current struggles with impostor syndrome. They described it not as something that magically goes away after graduation, but as a long-term challenge that over time can be managed. In one conversation, an incredibly talented older friend of mine told me about how every day she looks in the mirror and speaks only good things about herself in order to remind herself that she is enough. She holds a strong belief that comparing her abilities to others, in a way that does not foster growth but only brings her down, is a disservice to her younger self, one who worked tirelessly and among unique challenges to achieve all the successes she has to her name.
She is not wrong—it is unfair to our younger selves to be so harsh with our present-day selves. Practicing self kindness is surprisingly very difficult, but necessary in order to overcome the beast that is impostor syndrome.
The possibility that this feeling can be long-term is not meant to discourage anyone currently dealing with impostor syndrome, but instead can become a strategy to help reduce these negative feelings. Waiting for it to go away on its own will not work, we must treat ourselves with the respect and kindness we deserve in order for impostor syndrome to loosen its grip on us.
Of course, we are all different, and this is easier said than done, but it is not impossible. Your situation is unique, but your feelings make you part of a bigger community of those who came before you and those who will come after you.
And if you haven’t been reminded in a while, please bear in mind that you indeed do belong here, and your presence and uniqueness are important in shaping Vassar in ways that you may not even realize right now. You are a valid part of this community. You are deserving of your place here. You are enough.