You Are Not An Impostor


You belong here.

If these three words are aimed at you, chances are, you knew it right away when you read them. If you are preparing for college and questioning whether or not you deserve to be there, these words are for you. If you are returning to school after a long break, or as an adult who wasn't able to go to college when you were younger, these words are for you. If you are beginning work toward a GED, these words are for you. Most importantly: If you've ever been told by your family or by your community that you aren't good enough to reach for your dreams, these words are for you.

I am a college administrator and history professor, and I find myself saying those words every semester, even to students who are by most measures exceptional. They are words that I hope someone would have said to me had I been able to afford to go to college at 18.

You see, I came from what some would call a white trash upbringing. I was the first in my family to finish high school, but at 17, my hateful grandmother told me I wasn't good enough to go to college. We weren't college people, she said. I wasn't smart enough, she told me. I couldn't afford it anyway, so I internalized her words. She told me that I shouldn't get above my raising, so I accepted the idea that college was not for me. I believed her when she told me I wasn't good enough. She was wrong, and thankfully I was eventually able to realize that I deserved a shot at my dreams. With hard work and amazing support from those I met along the way, I was able to make those dreams come true.

If you are a first generation college student, you might find yourself struggling after a few weeks of college with the notion that you don't belong there. If you suffer from mental or physical illness, or come from an abusive home or relationship, or struggle with a learning disability, you might find yourself wondering if you have what it takes to finish a degree or a semester or a class or even one more day on campus. When those voices of doubt begin their hateful chorus in your head, just keep telling yourself: you belong here.

For much of my life, when something good happened to me, no matter how hard I worked for it, I immediately found myself scared and worried. It was often hard for me to celebrate my successes because I didn't believe I deserved them. I often thought that my achievements were a series of accidents. Eventually, I feared, the world would catch on and know that I shouldn't have accomplished the things I had. I thought I didn't deserve the good things and it didn't matter that I had worked my ass off for them.

I came to realize that those fears had a name: imposter syndrome. I struggled with it all of my life until I encountered mentors who understood it and worked to help me overcome it. When I finally realized what it was, I began to understand that it was a sort of artifact left over in my mind from having grown up poor.

Today, only rarely do I find myself slipping into the rut of imposter syndrome. I have become substantially more confident in large part because of the way those around me - my wife, my in-laws, a few members of my family, my colleagues, and those who taught me in undergrad and in graduate school - reinforce the idea that I deserve the things I work to earn. Because I experienced it so often in my life, I am able to see it in my students, and my heart silently breaks every time I talk to a student who thinks they don't belong simply because of where they came from.

My own journey in higher education didn't begin until I was 31. It took that long for my hateful grandmother's lecture about my unworthiness for college to wear off. I dreamed for years about going to college, but I couldn't afford to go after high school, and once I started building a career in business, I saw no way to leave my business to go to school. Finally, in 2010, when I found myself burned out and struggling after the Great Recession, I decided it was time to change my life. I sold my business and spent a year working up the courage to enroll in college. I planned it all very carefully, but even the most detailed plans didn't erase my anxiety.

I was a terrible student in junior high and high school. I never made above a D in math, and I didn't apply myself in the ways I should have, often because I was so paralyzed by the stigma associated with being poor. I looked around and saw that most of the "smart" kids around me wore nice name-brand clothing. They went on fun vacations and their parents had nice cars and they wore Nike shoes. Because I lacked all those things, my teenage brain thought I lacked the same intellectual capacity as them, too.

These fears continued to haunt me as I timidly considered going to college. For years, I operated in business with ego and bravado, but it was mostly a facade. That facade finally cracked, though I tried to hide that fact from those around me. The truth is that the prospect of going to college terrified me not because I didn't want to go - I wanted it more than anything - but because I thought I wasn't good enough to succeed.

Eventually, I decided that I would try it even if I wasn't certain how it would turn out. I started out at the local community college, and continued to believe I would fail miserably. Then, a couple of weeks into the semester, I realized how much I loved learning. By that time, I had begun to get feedback in the form of grades. Those grades were all A's, and they were a balm for my anxious mind. I remember the first day of statistics, the class I feared most. I admitted on my first-day questionnaire that I was terrible at math and feared I would fail the class. The instructor, Hilary Seagle, wrote "we'll work on it together, then," and returned it to me. I'm not sure Hilary knows how much good she did me with those six words, or how grateful I am for them even now. I finished the class with a 97 average. I have since completed two doctoral-level statistics courses, both with A's, and I use statistics every day in my work as a college administrator. Hilary believed in me in a way my grandmother didn't, and it changed my life.

It turns out that, by the time I made it to college, I wasn't a shitty student anymore. Twelve months after I first stepped foot into a college classroom, I finished an Associate of Arts degree with a 4.0 GPA. After graduating from Southwestern Community College, I enrolled at Western Carolina University, and the same old fears returned. I convinced myself that my work at the community college was a fluke, and that I couldn't succeed at the university. Once again, I was wrong. At WCU, I met amazing professors who simultaneously scared the hell out of me and inspired me to be a better student. By the time I finished Dr. Alex Macaulay's Sophomore Seminar in History, I knew that I wanted to be a college professor. I finally found the courage to admit that I was NOT an imposter. Thanks to Dr. Macaulay and so many others, I found my place. For the first time in my life, I felt like I belonged. I determined then that I would make it my primary goal to someday help my students get there, too.

These days, when I feel the imposter syndrome begin to return, I look at this picture from the day I received my master's degree. I think about how surreal it felt to put on that gown and hood and walk across the stage. I think about how much it means that Hilary and Dr. Macaulay and so many others believed in me. I think about how my in-laws, Dave and Katie, my wife Betsy, and my aunt Sis, are tireless advocates for my education in ways many members of my own family never were. I also think about what happened after this picture was taken.

Shortly after finishing my master's degree, I was offered admission to the University of Alabama's doctoral program in higher education administration. It was my first choice doctoral program, and when I applied, I braced myself for a rejection that never materialized. For a time, between being accepted and beginning the program, the imposter syndrome came back. I wondered if I was cut out to study at a prestigious flagship university in a program with world-class faculty. After all, it's a big jump from growing up in a trailer in North Carolina to attending class on University Blvd. in Tuscaloosa. When I went to Tuscaloosa for my orientation, though, I realized that, just like at Southwestern Community College and Western Carolina University, I would be working with faculty members who believed in me. When I got to know Dr. Frankie Laanan and Dr. Arleene Breaux, two of my professors, I realized that they, too, came from backgrounds like mine. It turns out that, even as a doctoral student, my background wasn't my destiny.

When I was 17, the thing that led my grandmother to tell me that I wasn't good enough was me telling her that I wanted to go to Brevard College after high school. I fell in love with BC when I went there in high school for a district concert band competition, and I dreamed of being a student there. I never had the chance to study there, but today, I'm a member of the Brevard College faculty. I am also the college's academic compliance and assessment officer. I don't know if my grandmother knows, and I don't really care. I finally realized that sometimes the only way to beat imposter syndrome is to cut the people who perpetuate it out of your life.

Failure is generally an objective measure. You will not have failed simply because you feel like a failure. When those imposter syndrome demons come for you, think of where you are now. If you are farther along now than you once were, even if the path to here really sucked, know that that progress is meaningful. I grew up in a world where I considered myself to be white trash because I thought that's how others saw me. Today, I'm teaching at a wonderful college that I never thought I'd even get the privilege to attend. I take credit for very little of this, because so many have bolstered my hard work with grace and kindness and encouragement. But I know this: the fact that I am here is not an accident. I no longer go to sleep at night fearing that I'll somehow be discovered as a fraud and stripped of all I have accomplished. No one is going to come rip my diplomas off my office wall, and no one can go back and revoke all the A's I earned in college.

So, if you find yourself reading this because someone saw it on the internet and thought it might fit your circumstances, let me tell you: You belong here. Wherever here is. If you worked your ass off to get where you are, know that you deserve to be there. If other people reached out to pull you up along the way, you still deserve to be there, and you owe it to those who helped you not only to say "thank you," but to now reach back yourself and help others who are struggling as you once struggled.

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© 2019 -  Joshua Wilkey - This Appalachian Life