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Impostor in Obieland?

November 8, 2021

Aishwarya Krishnaswamy ’23

Impostor.... what? 

The phrase "impostor phenomenon" (IP) was coined in our very own Obieland by Clinical psychologist Dr. Clance in the 1970s. The term is used to describe the internal feeling of being a fraud. This could look like attributing your success to luck, connections, charm, or something external other than your own competence and effort. While the chance + connections + timing cocktail is essential for things to happen, they are just a part of the reason, not the reason. 

So what? 

Rewinding back to my freshman year, around this time, I was starting to get to know other Obies, make new friends, get to know my professors better. One would think all of this would make me feel more comfortable. But instead, the more I got to know some of the most talented, well-rounded, intelligent, kind people I'd met in my life, the more I started to wonder, 'well, if all these people are here, then what am I doing here?' Never mind my hard work or accomplishments that led me to be one among a handful of students to get an opportunity to study in the U.S. all the way from Mumbai, India. The most straightforward answer that pops to mind is being an overly-fatigued admissions officer's 'admission mistake' oops! 

Struggling with this feeling of inadequacy, an impostor phenomenon, is further amplified as an international student when it's hard to communicate your experiences with your local peers. It's easy to disregard/underplay your experiences when everyone else seems to be talking about and doing things you didn't even have the possibility of doing, whether it's being a summer camp counselor or even waiting tables in a restaurant because employment works very differently in most developing countries (high population + job crunch = not many opportunities, close to zero if you're a student). It was Sophie who reminded me that just because my experiences were different doesn't mean they are not valid. Experiences involve transferable skills. Moreover, being an international student is itself a perspective-building experience.

Sophomore year, just when I started to feel settled, I declared my major. I felt a fresh wave of impostor phenomenon (IP) with all these incredible people who already knew so much more than me in the field of Psychology and Medicine. Once that dust kind of settled, as a junior, yet again I sense the fear of not being good enough, whether it is in my Ochem class or as a tutor to 3rd graders at the local elementary school (yup, the phonics are getting to me!). Then I walked into my psychology professor's office, and I saw her 'I'm good enough' mantra on the wall, and she told me about her struggle with IP. Now, she is my first-gen, Ph.D. at 28 years old and teaching right off the bat, COOL professor, and even she goes through bouts of impostor phenomenon. I know SOO many of my friends who feel or have felt the same way at one point or another. 

If there is one thing that this tells me is that there is no escape from this feeling. At every stage, there are probably going to be waves of impostor phenomenon. They may look different, and their intensity might reduce with age and experience, but for the most part, the only thing in my reach is my mindset to IP. 

Now what? 

Here are a few ways I have seen people around me and myself find a workaround for those gnawing moments of impostor phenomenon: 

  1. What do we have in common?: The one thing that we all have in common is OBERLIN! We all are here because we chose Oberlin. Likewise, Oberlin chose us because we deserve to be here, grow, and add value to this community. So it's only natural that people around you have done a bunch of cool things (academically, artistically, athletically, etc.). This doesn't diminish your accomplishment but only reinforces the strength of the community with whom you've chosen to spend the next four years of your life. 
  2. Don't be afraid to be vulnerable: The more I openly talked to my friends and teachers, the more I realized that I wasn't the only one feeling this; the classic pluralistic ignorance had sneaked up on me. While others going through IP doesn't make the feeling better, it normalizes it, and there is some comfort in that.
  3. Take the LEAD 150 'Approaches to Learning' class: Anna, one of my favorite people on campus (also my boss!), teaches this cool one-module class. This class does a good dive into combatting the impostor phenomenon amidst other important concepts like time management and growth mindset. 

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