I remember the day, five years ago, when college admission results came out. I was sitting behind my computer, my heart pounding wildly as I logged into my Princeton Applicant Portal account. I took a deep breath and pressed “enter.” The first words that came up were, “Congratulations! I am delighted to offer you admission …” A huge smile spread across my incredulous face, and my heart was pounding again, but for all the right reasons. That night, I could not sleep. I was afraid that if I closed my eyes, I would awaken to find out it was all a dream. The next morning, when I awoke, I checked my email then pinched myself. It was not a dream. It was a dream come true. When I stepped into a class at high school, a teacher would always say, “here’s our Ivy Leaguer!” I would look around me as though they were talking to someone beside me, above me, around me. Someone who was not me. Ivy Leaguer. I thought of the identity, of the amazing person it entailed.
Princeton University was not just a name that I wore on my shirt, but a reputation that I carried on my shoulders. Every time someone said, “Whoa! You’re from Princeton?!” I felt pressed to say something smart or, at least, not to appear stupid.
When I stepped on campus, I met incredible people, ranging from Olympic athletes and chess champions to published authors and awarded innovators. At first I was awed, but then I noticed that my jaw was not the only thing that dropped to the ground — so did my self-esteem. Who was I to be among such super people? I couldn’t let them see into my insecurities, though. I couldn’t let them think that I was an impostor. So I pretended to be perfect.
In lecture halls, if I had a question, I would wait for someone else to pose it. If no one did, it meant that I was the only one who did not understand, and I did not want to single myself out that way. In study groups, I acted like I understood concepts that I did not, and I only struggled through them when I was on my own. I joined way too many clubs, including ones I did not enjoy. But beyond my surface performance, I was crumbling on the inside. Within my emotions, I was buried alive.
Then one day towards the end of the year, a group of friends began reflecting on their college experiences. Hearing them, I became shocked for two reasons. First, I realized that many of their emotions mirrored mine. Here was a sea of students, yet we were each on our own island of isolation. The words of my friends were the bridge that connected us, that made us realize we were not alone.
Second, hearing a story like my own but from someone else, opened my eyes to our foolishness. There we were in an elite institution with a wealth of resources. Yet we would not tap into it, afraid of looking unintelligent or unworthy of being there. We forgot that we’d worked so hard for it, so now that we’d achieved it, we could hardly believe it.
I was angry with myself. I had wasted what could have been one of the best years of my life. A school was a place to expand and learn. Yet I felt like I had shrunk, and the only lesson I learned was that belittling myself was no way to grow.
The second year, I vowed to change. I asked questions fearlessly and sought help without hesitation. I participated actively in precepts and encouraged others. I conversed with my professors after class and attended office hours. My eyes opened to a toxic phenomenon among competitive students: we were all once the top of our classes. When all these top students are put in one class, many feel like they are drowning in the middle or sinking to the bottom. There are those who try by any means to raise their head from the sea of students, grasping for the glory of being on top again. But I learned that cooperation was better than competition. I helped out my friends and asked the questions they wouldn’t ask themselves. I became a peer academic advisor, guiding freshman students, so they wouldn’t make the same mistakes I did. That second year and every year after that until graduation were some of the best years of my life. It reflected on my transcript, my health and my happiness.
As a current graduate student at Stanford, I have seen many of the scenes of impostor syndrome repeat themselves, as though Stanford has one ideal-type or poster child. We need to dispel this pressure for perfection. There is no such thing as perfection, for there is always room for improvement. But constantly cocooning ourselves in the facade of perfection is no way to improve. We need to remind ourselves that the purpose of a school is to learn, rather than prove ourselves already learned. But learning does not happen without failure, and failure is not a boulder in our way, but a stepping-stone that is the way. And along the way, we will tumble and fall. But this will help us stand taller as people and reach new heights.
Contact Maha Al Fahim at mfahim ‘at’ stanford.edu.