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Impostor Syndrome is Real and How Storytelling can Help

by Danielle Phan, on Jul 21, 2016 5:00:00 AM


One afternoon in the spring of my senior year, I hid in the back of the choral room, where I spent most of my free time on campus. This time, instead of goofing around on the piano and singing with my friends, I sat criss-cross atop a desk and stared intensely at my laptop screen as I logged in to check my decisions. I had already been admitted to schools I would have been thrilled to attend, I reminded myself, so it didn’t really matter where else I got in. I opened Brown University’s website, not expecting anything at all, and clicked, “View Admission Decision.”

It was a yes, and I laughed out loud.

My best friend, who was somewhat bemused by my reaction, asked, “What?”

“I got into Brown!?!?” I said, in utter disbelief.

Getting into my dream school really felt like a dream, a dream in which I did not belong. I wondered when I would wake up. That feeling of not belonging – termed “impostor syndrome” – was one that hit me in that moment and lingered with me throughout my time in college. In everything I did, from academics to extracurriculars, it was too easy to question the legitimacy of my existence, my seat at the table.

There’s a quote engraved on the wall outside of the John Carter Brown library on Brown’s campus, which reads, “Speak to the past, and it shall teach thee.” As a history concentrator, this quote has always been meaningful to me. In college I became enraptured with the idea that the stories of the past could teach me how I could create better future.

What I underestimated, though, was how much I could learn if I spoke to my own past. My experiences as an immigrant who grew up in an underserved neighborhood in San Jose had more of an impact on the academic and extracurricular decisions I made in college than anything. Engaging with those memories ­– and telling my stories to my community at Brown ­– showed me that I was absolutely not an impostor. Through storytelling, I could connect with those experiences authentically.

As you move forward with your college applications, I encourage you to consider the value of your own stories. Looking back, with the understanding that the stories that I had to tell were incredibly valuable, I wish I had been able to connect with a couple of key stories sooner.

There are a couple clichés you’re told you should do in college, and that I actually did: be a leader and do what you love. These clichés are prime targets for impostor syndrome – it is incredibly easy to feel underqualified or fake in all of these contexts. These are the contexts where speaking to my past experiences taught me immeasurably. Storytelling gave me the ethos to be the changemaker I wanted to be. Storytelling can give you that ethos too.

Be a leader

Taking a leadership position in any setting can feel intimidating – I often wondered, what makes me exceptionally qualified to lead, compared to my peers? The student population at Brown is unbelievably inspiring, and I especially admired the leadership of the student group I was a part of for their thoughtfulness, adeptness, and knowledge. As I questioned my ability to lead this tutoring organization, I could not imagine myself on the same level as them. What helped, though, was realizing what made me unique, and those were the stories of my past that connected me to what I wanted to do in the future. I thought back to one experience in which I was able to personally connect with a student on a common past experience. It was the moment when he realized that we both had immigrant parents – this connection gave us both a deeper understanding of what was at stake in this work. This moment allowed me to understand on an instinctual level the reasons why I chose the work that I did, and bolstered my leadership because it was a concrete experience that informed the philosophies of my community work.

Do what you love

Practical concerns can make it hard to choose to do something that you truly love. So many thoughts ran through my mind as I wondered what courses to take and activities to choose: can I afford to major in something that does not have a clear cut career path? Can I afford to do community service instead of working this semester? Pursuing passions can feel hedonistic, especially when practical concerns are real, and there. This was where looking back to my past was especially key. I remembered that as a girl, I used to read the fictional American Girl series, about young girls in different historical periods, only so that I could read their historical epilogues. I used to save those ten pages at the end of each novel to motivate and “reward” myself for finishing the fictional part of the book faster. Although, indeed, there was not an obvious career path to studying history, this story made me realize that I loved history for as long as I could remember and it would be foolish not to pursue something with such extensive roots.

Of course, one does not overcome impostor syndrome in one night (or at all – it’s still something that I grapple with!), and speaking to one’s past is much easier said than done. But I hope this is a start to thinking about the ways that your past impacts your future. Let the quote outside the John Carter Brown be your mantra: speak to the past, and it shall teach thee.

Topics:college admission