Anthony Corrales/Sun Staff Photographer

McGraw Tower

November 30, 2023

Persona non Grata: Actually, You do Belong

Print More

Imposter syndrome has come to occupy an insidious space in academia, casting a shadow that conceals a genuine sense of belonging among students. It functions as a silent oppressor and gives rise to internal dialogues of self-doubt and criticism, often kept unspoken due to the fear that these doubts might be externalized, branding one as a sham. Standing among the vibrant tapestry of Cornell’s campus, I find myself amidst 15,000 students, each with unique backgrounds, experiences and stories to tell. Nonetheless, what connects our discrepancies is the common thread of our reputable and rightfully deserved education. 

So why the cognitive dissonance? It’s all too easy to dismiss my previous statement as deceit, to project it onto those who surround you, all while maintaining an incredulous stance that you — yes, you — warrant the recognition as someone who belongs. As each semester unfolds, the routines we adapt gradually morph into second nature. The composing of elaborate literary theses, synthesizing of carbonyl compounds and designing of chemical plants are downplayed to just daily affairs — equated to the brushing of teeth.

As such intellectual pursuits settle themselves into the rhythm of routine, we — the creators, the doers, the learners, the trailblazers — often find ourselves relegated to the margins of their production and display. It’s a familiar scenario for us all: a situation where we can’t help but devalue the acknowledgment of our achievements, dismissing accolades as an overreaction or a mere mistake. 

The prevailing culture of competition within academic institutions is undoubtedly insidious. As a transfer student, my initial foray into Cornell involved navigating the dynamics of establishing myself amid an excellence and professionalism that seemed beyond my own reach. Hailing from a small seaside town, I emerged as salutatorian of my class of 73 students, making waves in local headlines for my contributions to feminist outreach and academic prowess. I’d stare at my senior portrait gracing local covers, unsure of who she was and what gave her the prerogative to be there.

Upon coming to Ithaca, this ghost of inadequacy lingered like a constant companion. I played host to imposter syndrome, a parasite that refused to be quelled. No longer among the 73 familiar faces from my graduating class, I felt like a mere drop in Cornell’s expansive bucket. In a lecture teeming with over 100 attendees, my vulnerability was laid bare. The learning environment was permeated with individuals whose passions and interests so closely mirrored my own, creating an atmosphere both intoxicating and invigorating. Despite having convinced myself that my presence was an aberration among my more qualified peers, I possessed a relentless drive to prove this notion wrong.

What I, along with many others who consider themselves anomalies in the domain of academia, failed to consider is that even the most lauded among us are not immune to the pervasive plague of imposter syndrome, nor does accomplishment serve as its remedy. As Annie Dillard once said, “The impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.” In entering new territories only to fence ourselves in with self-doubt, we inhibit the contribution of our respective brilliance to the dynamic mosaic that is academia in its entirety. While the fear of being perceived as a fraud is ubiquitous, in allowing ourselves to be puppeteered by imposter syndrome, we undermine our commonality of a shared, reputable and rightfully deserved presence and education. 

Through understanding this and embracing our shared vulnerability, we fortify the foundations of true intellectual progress, transcending the shackles of self-derogation and allowing the symphony of expertise to resonate in its full glory. In crafting this piece, I endured my share of discomfort, pushing beyond my accustomed boundaries of humility and modesty. Submitting it for publication opens the door to the daunting prospect of it being dismissed by readers and critiqued by a source as venerable as The Sun. Nevertheless, in deconstructing the barriers of imposter syndrome, I know that its release to the public warrants more than a fleeting pat on the back — it is an opportunity to recognize my achievement as something to be celebrated. And in the spirit of triumph, dear reader, I encourage you to revel in such self-accomplishment too.