im·pos·tor syn·drome (n)
The persistent inability to believe that one's success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one's own efforts or skills
Learning to Unlearn Impostor Syndrome
by Nohely Peraza, ‘16
At her visit to a girls’ school in London in early December, former first-lady Michelle Obama confessed, “I still have a little impostor syndrome; it never goes away. It’s sort of like ‘you’re actually listening to me?’ It doesn’t go away, that feeling of ‘I don’t know if the world should take me seriously; I’m just Michelle Robinson, that little girl on the south side who went to public school.’”
To hear these words coming from one of the most influential women in the world is both comforting and shocking. This resonates with me because it often feels as though impostor syndrome follows me in every new space I navigate, and I fear that it is something that will never leave me.
Coined in 1978 by psychoanalysts Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, the term “Impostor Syndrome” can be defined as the feeling of inadequacy or inability that arises despite being qualified. It is the fear of being “found out as a fraud” for believing you have succeeded out of luck and not because you’ve earned it.
Thinking back to when I first felt impostor syndrome, I can easily tell you that for me, it started in elementary school. My educational career, as with most children in my community, started in the Ravenswood School District. When my mother saw that my potential was underserved due to my school’s lack of resources and preparation, she agreed to enter me into the Tinsley Program lottery. Upon my acceptance in the 1st grade, I participated in this bussing program, established in the 1970s to desegregate affluent, predominantly white neighborhoods and provide low-income students of color from East Palo Alto (E.P.A.) and Belle Haven with equal access to a quality education. The approximately 25 students on that yellow bus made up almost all of the students of color in the school.
I slowly started to see differences between school and home. The library at my elementary school was the size of the E.P.A. library. My classmates had parents who read to them every night, and my mother could not read or write. My clothes came from thrift stores and my mother’s hard-earned money. My lunch came from a government-issued brown paper bag. As young as 1st grade, I felt I had to work harder to be at the same level with my peers, and I strongly believe this would not have been possible if I didn’t already love to read and learn new things. My mother and I would tell each other from my days in elementary school that we didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I was going to go to college. I didn’t even know what the word meant. I just knew that a long path of schooling lay ahead of me. The prospect of learning itself, of reading and writing better, propelled me forward.
Fast forward to my acceptance to Eastside in 5th grade to enter the 6th grade class. I remember school bus friends feeling like I was leaving them by choosing school over them. I sometimes felt selfish in my decision, but knew that in the long-run, this would make my and my family’s dream of college a reality.
I took on the intensity of Eastside’s 8am-5pm school days for seven years, boarding for three of those years, and completed an intense college-prep focused curriculum. My hard work at Eastside got me to Williams College. You take students who dream of being the first in their family to go to college, say the word “college” to them every day and show them you believe they will get there, and they will. I had an absurd amount of support from teachers, administrators, staff, tutors, peers, community members, and family. The classroom environment never felt competitive. I never felt like I didn’t belong because we all came from similar backgrounds and had the same goal. But imposter syndrome came back in full towards the end of high school as I was preparing to go to college.
I remember almost not applying to Williams because I thought it was too big a reach. Anna, our college counselor, said I needed at least one reach on my college list. Even when I was accepted to Williams, the first thought that popped into my head was that I had received the wrong email. I didn’t have the SAT scores or GPA. A year’s financial aid award was more than double my mother’s annual income. Was this not the best liberal arts college in the country? Why would they invest in me? Was I really about to leave my family and go across the country?
The all-too-familiar questions of doubt took over once again when I arrived. My peers were the children of the people whose homes my mother cleaned. They had parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents who had attended college. They were legacies of Williams College. They had been nationally recognized. They came from renowned boarding schools and the richest parts of the country. They had been in competitive sports and had been in music and dance lessons since childhood. It felt like I had lifted three times the weight to actualize my childhood dream of getting to college, a place they always knew they’d one day be in.
After an initial shock, I didn’t necessarily feel at a disadvantage academically during my first two years of college because Eastside had prepared me for academic rigor. But, wow, does it feel like an understatement to say I felt impostor syndrome in just about every other way. It felt unfair that I was getting my food and rent paid for as my mother worked two jobs to pay for the same back home. It felt unfair that I had the luxury to stress over a few papers as family members struggled to translate documents regarding their legal status. It felt unfair when I have family, friends and neighbors who never went to school or dropped out long before making it to college. It felt unfair that I knew of people from my community who did not make it out alive, and here I was.
These thoughts never really went away, but I felt that I could temporarily silence them by investing my energy into concrete work, which I had control over. I overcame the stress that seemed to plague me during my time at Eastside—that of grades. I haven’t been concerned about my GPA since high school because my goal for most of my life was college. I enjoy learning new things, and I do the work assigned to me. If I try my best, what follows is not a reflection of my ability. Instead, my stress at Williams has come with trying to balance what goes on at home with what goes on in my mind.
I suppose it’s not that surprising that my impostor syndrome reached an all-time high during my first term abroad at Oxford. Once again: why me? Why was I accepted for this incredible opportunity to study abroad at one of the world’s best institutions for a year? As if getting into Williams was not crazy enough! Why do I get access to an education that others can only dream of? Why do I get to see places my family members cannot see with me? Always the same attempt to recognize my hard work, but feeling guilty for doing so.
What I saw here was another ballpark. We’re no longer talking generations of educational legacies, but centuries in history. I did not see people that looked like me or who spoke like me. I did not understand many literary references and terms that my tutors patiently guided me through. I could not write in the same way that others can. But the same passion for learning new material through reading and writing continues to push me forward. The love I have for my family, and the promise of a better future for myself, and in turn theirs, is what I always have and will continue to strive for. There is so much about the world I want to absorb. Any small part of my story that I can bring back to my community will make it all worth it. I have to keep pushing! I’ve made it this far, and I have to see how far I can go.
I don’t have the answer to overcoming impostor syndrome. I can’t say that I ever will. As easy as it is to give into lingering thoughts of fear or worry, I cannot dismiss that it has taken blood, sweat, and tears for me to get to where I am. Long, sleepless nights. Shelves of books. Pages upon pages of writing. Countless questions. Endless worries. Sometimes it feels like bragging to share all of this, but I also can’t fathom discussing where I am and where I am headed without recognizing where I come from. I must admit that even in being asked to write this post, and in the process of writing it, I felt a little like Michelle Obama: “You’re actually listening to me?” I’m just Nohely Peraza, that little girl on the east side who was bussed an hour every day to be able to read more books. But my story is important because it is not just mine.
I’ll conclude with words from my family that keep me going when I get intrusive thoughts of self-doubt and guilt. My mother once told me, “I don’t need to tell you that I am proud of you. What a stupid statement—Of course I am proud of you! I need you to be proud of yourself. The only way you’ll ever truly make me happy is if you aim to make yourself happy.” My father once told me, “Never remain lying down. Keep standing. And when you can’t stand—roll. Crawl, if you have to. But always move forward.” And my brother: “I was blessed enough to make it to the court, but I practiced, shot my shot, and was lucky enough to have made the basket.”
I am proud of myself. I have been my strongest critic and my greatest friend. I’m eternally indebted to the people in my life who have helped me get to where I am today, but I would be doing an injustice to myself if I did not acknowledge that I have worked hard to get here. This knowledge alone is worth more than any small hint of impostor syndrome that tries to get in my way.
This is the second reflection in the series on Imposter Syndrome. The first post can be found here:https://eastsidealums.wordpress.com/2019/02/27/imposter-syndrome-alumni-reflections-with-ashely-vega-15/