Towards the end of Penn’s week of New Student Orientation – after days of free food, introductory talks and tours of campus buildings – Locust walk is abuzz with the sounds of students signing up for extracurricular activities. The infamous Activities Fair stretches all the way from the Huntsman building of Wharton to the outer edge of College Green at 34th and Walnut. Students from all of Penn’s undergraduate societies, associations and clubs stand behind handmade posters and pass out fliers, eagerly awaiting potential new members.
When I attended the fair as a freshman, I was overwhelmed by the variety and quantity of organizations available at Penn. I had a few passions I’d carried with me from high school that I really wanted to continue with at Penn; I had debated competitively for 5 years, and I loved public speaking and theater. I was also, however, hoping that college would help me to expand my interests. I was really curious about all of the style and culture publications (like 34th Street, Penn Appetit, and The Walk, just to name a few) and I knew I wanted to work on exciting research projects.
Yet, as is often the case in the first few months of college, I had let the conversations of other people influence me, and I arrived at the fair feeling nervous and unqualified. Just the evening before, for instance, I had overheard a conversation about the competitiveness of the debate society and began to doubt whether I would be able to continue debating in college. Because of this, at the fair, I approached the Penn Debate Society table with the utmost caution. With two of my friends as backup, I started up a conversation with a friendly junior who, as it turned out, was PDS’s incoming president. She happily handed me a flier, and encouraged all of us to “try out for the team, we’d love everyone to give it a shot!”
A few days later, I auditioned for the Penn Debate Society. The friendliness of PDS members at the Activities Fair had given me a boost of confidence; yet, I exited my audition with the same feelings of unworthiness and anxiety I had experienced ahead of the activities fair. I had messed up some of my general knowledge questions, and made myself sound like a real doofus by eagerly replying “The Lord of the Rings” to the question of “what’s your favorite nonfiction book?” I told everyone in my Riepe hall that I had bombed the audition entirely.
My friends comforted me and reminded me of all of the other wonderful opportunities I had ahead of me at Penn. Days passed, and I moved on from the embarrassment of the debate tryout: I began thinking of work-study jobs and research programs to apply to. I realized that my happiness need not be dependent on the approval of a small group of people. Yet, to my complete, happy surprise, a knock on my door at 9 pm on a Tuesday night – followed by a rousing rendition of the Debate Society’s beloved song – notified me (and all of the residents of Riepe 3rd Floor!) of my acceptance as a member of PDS. Paradoxically, though, this news brought back my feelings of disbelief and self-doubt; I wondered how I had scraped my way into such a selective, high-achieving society.
It was only a few weeks later, when I had my first real conversations with other PDS members, that I understood how much my peers valued me. My new friends told me that I had seemed authentic and passionate in my audition and that they were so excited to have me as a member of their organization. They assured me that everyone goes through a period of confusion, anxiety, and self-doubt in the process of club applications, and that, in the long run, your Penn career need not be defined by the organizations that accept you as members.
Imposter Syndrome is a tricky phenomenon – one that takes shape in many aspects of life at elite institutions like Penn. While not every single Penn student goes through club recruitment (in fact, I have many friends who found fulfillment here in other ways) the crowded, competitive nature of the process can feel utterly overwhelming as a freshman in the first few weeks of college. Looking back, I wish someone had told me that everyone messes up in club interviews and that so-called competitive clubs are made up of normal Penn students who are simply looking for passion and authenticity from applicants. More than anything, though, I wish someone had told me that my Penn career would be defined by what I uniquely choose to invest my time and passion into – not by how well I fit into an arbitrary mold or check off boxes of “campus involvement.”
I’ve blogged about this before, but I’ll probably keep saying it forever: Penn is a place for you to be you. In fact, if I could go back in time, I would say to freshman Alex: “when all those around you are nervous about club applications, just keep calm, comfort your friends, and know that you, uniquely, have so much to add to the world of Penn.”