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Ornate organ pipes. Photo by Chris Alburger

Ornate organ pipes. Photo by Chris Alburger

When I first found out that I got into HDS, I was completely bowled over with happiness. That joy soon gave way to sheer panic as I attempted to comprehend what being a Harvard student means. 

For me, at least, as you can see in my last post, Harvard had this mythic, quasi-utopian quality to it. In my mind, it was basically a combination of Heaven and academic Disney World. It was, to my family’s mind, somewhere with such prestige that was so far removed from our reality that it was almost not worth hoping for. (The key word there being “almost.”)

On top of this historical baggage, I just did not believe that I fit the ideal of what a Harvard student was supposed to look like. I did not have a 4.0 GPA, my GRE scores were fairly mediocre, and I was coming directly from a fairly small undergraduate program. I wasn’t a genius like my colleagues from Fordham who had gone to HDS before me. I didn’t read the Wall Street Journal daily. I had never won any prestigious fellowships, I hadn’t done any extensive volunteer work (domestically or abroad), and I wasn’t fluent in four languages.

Do any of the above descriptions seem a little ridiculous to you? Good. That’s the point.

Harvard, as an institution, for better or worse, has been endowed in our collective cultural memory as an unattainably prestigious university. We have access to incredible amounts of privilege as a result of pursuing graduate work here—privilege that we might not deserve. Empirically, it’s a fact that Harvard opens many doors that others may not have access to. That’s part of the deal, and something to wrestle with throughout your time here.

As a result of this, you may feel unworthy of being here—like you aren’t good enough, smart enough, have enough experience, or think that your admission was simply an accident.  Those feelings are totally valid, and they aren’t necessarily going to go away.

However, this does NOT mean that you do not deserve to be here.

These feelings have many names, but the title that I prefer to use is Impostor Syndrome. It’s a very visceral reality that permeates through Harvard, with incoming students and returning ones alike.

See, the thing with cultural memory and idealized expectations is that they don’t go away, even if you come to HDS and realize that no one is fluent in four languages, uses stupidly indecipherable words in normal conversation, or deems Star Wars a cinematic farce. But the reality is that no one here is perfect. Those expectations are reinforced by everyone’s perceived ideas of Harvard, and their behaviors surrounding those ideas, and they ultimately color one’s understanding of reality at HDS.

I can’t dispel those ideas for you—that takes a process of unlearning that only you can do. However, I can tell you some things that can make Impostor Syndrome a little easier to combat.

1) Many of us procrastinate on our homework.

2) Many of us enjoy sleeping in, like all grad students.

3) Many of us are incredibly terrified of numbers and want nothing to do with them—in school, in life, in all forms.

4) Some of us have come straight from undergrad, while others have decades of real-world experience.

5) Some of us are in our 20’s, some of us are in our 60’s.

6) Many of us enjoy eating sugary foods, staying up way too late, and generally doing other irresponsible things.

7) Many of us feel inadequate because our classmates know so much.

8) Many of us have fun on the weekends. Yes, it is possible.

9) Some of us live with roommates, some of us have families, and some of us prefer to live alone.

Those things are not going to make Impostor Syndrome go away. It’s a process, like anything else. But please know that if you were offered admission, it’s not an accident or a joke. It was an intentional and sincere process on the part of the admissions committee to bring you here. We want you here. We know that you are incredibly wise and visionary. We want you to be part of our family, because you can contribute something that no one else here can. If you believe nothing else about HDS, believe that.

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