As I write this, a girl sits five feet away from me on a phone interview. She talks in short, commanding sentences. Occasionally, she gets up from her seat and paces around. She looks like a character straight out of a movie someone who knows what she wants and is out to get it. At Penn, it often feels like everyone on campus has an interview lined up but me.
Signs for Career Fairs and grant opportunities line Locust Walk. Emails flood my inbox every Monday about “new opportunities”. Parades of students in perfectly tailored suits and dresses march through campus en-route to coffee chats, interviews, and meetings with recruiters. And yet, despite all of my late-night online job searches and resume revision, I don’t know my job plan...yet. Scary sentence isn’t it? Sometimes, “I don’t know” feels like the worst thing you can say as a Penn student. So much of the undergraduate machine runs off of competition--real or imagined. For me, all of my “I don’t knows”, from what jobs I’m applying for to what classes I’m taking next semester, pile up into a mountain of “I don’t belong here.” Unfortunately, this is a common feeling at Penn. Psychologists call it Imposter Syndrome, the recurring pattern of doubting your accomplishments and a fear of other people discovering that you are a fraud.
Imposter Syndrome is felt most by first generation, low income students or anyone who is new to the hyper-competitive, pre-professional atmosphere. I’m not first generation, but coming to Penn was an enormous shock. I grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and few people from my high school left the state for college. During my first few months at Penn, I truly felt like I didn’t belong here. I didn’t visit campus before moving into my dorm in Gregory College House, and I still remember sitting on my bare, vinyl mattress and staring at the concrete wall – painted sea blue to look more welcoming – and thinking, “what have I done?” At that time, I didn’t know what Imposter Syndrome was. All I knew was the feeling of isolation from my new classmates as I walked through campus. Wasn’t college supposed to be fun? Wasn’t it supposed to feel like the perfect fit? I can’t remember when I found the official term for my feelings, but I remember how it felt to feel like someone understood what I was going through, even if they were a staff writer on PsychologyToday.com. In a small way, having a phrase for what I was experiencing made it easier to understand and therefore easier to overcome, even if I didn’t feel triumphant yet.
I thought I had gotten over my Imposter Syndrome at Penn, but it has come roaring back this semester and seems to have taken a strong grip on my confidence. It’s a weird feeling. Rationally, I belong here. I was accepted. I go to class. I complete assignments. I’ve joined student groups and made friends. I even have the infamous “P” sweater with my graduation year embroidered on the sleeve a junior year tradition. But still, in the wake of senior year pressure, I feel a disconnect being a Penn student and believing I am Penn student, just as much as my fellow suit-wearers and phone-interviewers. I don’t have an easy solution for this feeling. I wish I could tell you to brew a cup of chamomile tea and watch your favorite Netflix special and it will all feel better. Admittedly, that is a great short term solution that I often use to deal with school stress. But long term, the solution needs to be deeper. One route is therapy. While traditional therapy can be expensive, Penn offers free counseling services at CAPS (Counseling and Psychological Services). I worked with a therapist at CAPS for six months before I was referred out to a long-term counselor in Center City. I really enjoyed my time at CAPS, and I found it was an easy way to begin a longer process of getting in touch with my true feelings. As a Penn Student, we are often encouraged to push away negative emotions for the sake of “getting the work done.” But CAPS is a safe place to explore the confusing that flow through us each day. Did I mention that it’s free?
By going to CAPS, I learned how to better know myself and how to communicate how I feel to others without fear of being ridiculed. This leads me to the best advice I have for overcoming Imposter Syndrome at Penn: reaching out. It’s easy to say and much more difficult to do, but reaching out to someone I trust has been my best remedy to feeling alone on campus. This person can be my career advisor, work-study boss, best friend, or favorite professor. It doesn’t have to be a lengthy, soul-bearing conversation, but something as simple as “I feel really overwhelmed and like everyone knows what they’re doing but me.” These are very relatable feelings, for Penn students and non-Penn students alike.
Everyone has a story about a time they thought they didn’t belong, and, hopefully, the story has a good ending. I find that reaching out, even when you feel one second away from packing a suitcase and leaving campus for good (which I did once freshman year but I came back after three days), is enormously helpful. No one can know you need help unless you ask for it. It’s scary, of course, to admit that you don’t have it all together. But I promise you, it is so much scarier to do it alone. Take it from me, someone who lays on her bed alone and stress-Googles jobs in the Philadelphia area, someone who once ate a whole bag of gummy bears before she told her friend that she was upset about an exam, someone who took nearly twenty years to learn how to ask for help when she needed it. Reaching out is your one-way ticket out of Imposter Syndrome and into a supportive community that will do everything they can to help you succeed.