The imposter paradox, post-affirmative action.
By Andrea Contreras
On Feb. 23, I received a most reassuring email. It wasn’t from one of the many academics I had cold-emailed, seeking advice on attaining a summer internship. Nor was it from one of the nonprofits I had applied to via LinkedIn, requesting my availability for an first-round interview with their diversity team. It was the elusive, though ever-present, Joseph Defraine Greenwell, Columbia’s senior vice president for student affairs, hoping to impart some wisdom on practicing self-compassion. With midterms looming, Greenwell confessed, as intimately as a mass-distributed correspondence allows, that he too is a victim of the most rampant disease plaguing higher education today. “I continually manage my own imposter syndrome, and at times, self-doubt. Sometimes, I can be hard on myself and even wonder if I belong or am successful in the various spaces I have the opportunity to engage in—work, friends, etc.,” he admits. He then expressed his surprise that many Columbia students feel the same way, although our success is seemingly reinforced daily by our Ivy League patronage.
Luckily, Greenwell offers a clockwork cure to our shared ailment. Every couple of months, University Student Life hosts virtual workshops on constructing confidence, combating imposter syndrome, and practicing self-compassion. Led by groups including Columbia Health, Columbia School of Social Work, the Graduate Initiative for Inclusion and Engagement, the Department of Multicultural Affairs, and the Campus Conversation Initiative, the campaign to quell student self-doubt emerges from myriad institutional angles.
Imposter syndrome, once a lesser known term, is now a championed buzzword of Columbia’s kin, Corporate America. As defined by psychologist Pauline Clance, the “imposter phenomenon” refers to a sense of anxiety and discomfort, a belief of not deserving success, and a fear of being found out as a fraud, all within a high-performing environment. Over the past five years, endless socio-economic research has investigated the prevalence of imposter syndrome in the workplace. Every study comes to the same conclusion: Imposter syndrome is experienced at monumental rates by American professionals (between 65% and 82%, depending on the study). The biggest victims: women and people of color. Corporate women today are diagnosed with imposter syndrome at higher rates than Resting Bitch Face; Black women and Latinas at higher rates than “Too Loud/Aggressive” (the previous reigning disorders, respectively). Their prescription? Mandatory attendance at company webinars, Microsoft Teams hangouts, and other virtual spaces specifically designed to inspire the confidence of the afflicted.
The messaging in the corporate context is clear: Confident employees are more productive. Confident employees brush things off. Confident employees don’t file complaints with HR. Confident employees don’t quit. America runs on Dunkin’, not crippling feelings of workplace alienation.
It’s not surprising that Columbia is participating in the “overcoming imposter syndrome”-industrial complex. Columbia can’t afford to lose its most vulnerable students (and employees) to self-doubt. Thus, its faculty have been tasked with the responsibility of educating the world’s present and future elite. However, for those of us who aren’t the future of the upper echelon, the point feels nebulous. For first-generation students, low-income students and for many students of color, these workshops often fall flat because most realize that we’ve been misdiagnosed. Greenwell, charming as he is in his striped bowtie on your Zoom screen, cannot make you feel like you belong at a place like Columbia.
Students of color are always out of place in predominantly white, elite institutions. Low-income students, first-generation students, children of non-Western immigrants, non-Western immigrants themselves, are always in way over our heads. We know it when we step foot on campus, and we realize that academia’s gods are all strangers; when we don’t recognize a single author inscribed at the top of Butler Library; when we mispronounce their names on our first day of LitHum.
—“Play-doh? ¿Como la plastilina?”
—“No mami, Plato, como el filósofo.”
—“AHHHH estás leyendo Platón. Guau.”
Despite Columbia’s claims of being the most socio-economically diverse Ivy, the structural preservation of Columbia’s white, elite history insists upon itself. You re-realize that you don’t belong every day. You’re estranged because you realize your naïvete. You know so little about the way the (capital-W White) (capital-W Wealthy) World Works, about how things truly go: how people get jobs (their parents), how people keep up with school (they don’t work), how people read so fast (they don’t read), how they maintain regular sleep schedules (they ask for extensions), how they understand the material so quickly (they learned this in high school). It’s having your place at school challenged by the Supreme Court, then casually debated about by Michael and Jessica during dinner parties (“Affirmative action: Yay or Nay?”). It’s deciding whether to sit there and engage in yet another spiel defending your deservedness, or to politely excuse yourself from the table. It’s being poked and prodded daily about your identity, about people trying to figure you out. Being inspected, being interrogated: How did you get here? Who are you in relation to me? It’s the daily use of your experience and identity as a source of intellectual dissection.
There’s some comfort in knowing you’re not the only one out there who feels this way. There are spaces to have these conversations outside of the moderated context of Columbia’s bureaucracy—with friends, through groups for students of color, in certain classrooms. We make spaces for ourselves, and they can feel pleasant and safe. But it’s uncomfortable to know now that we are the last of them: the last affirmative action generation, the end of the lineage of frauds.
Most overt racist and classist hostilities on this campus are dampened by the New York City white liberal shroud. Columbia prides itself in being a diverse, need-blind, progressive Ivy League university. The university will, of course, never “agree” with the Supreme Court decision banning race-based admissions. Columbia’s ex-president Lee Bollinger himself earned his litigatory fame while fighting to uphold affirmative action in his landmark case, Grutter v. Bollinger. Not to mention that banning race-based admission will likely cause Black and Latino student admission to plummet at rates that Columbia can’t afford to face if it wants to maintain its image. Though Columbia’s campus itself has long been a host to structural, racial hostilities, many of us now have never experienced an explicit condemnation of our place here. But the court’s language has exposed us; it has ripped the veil from the faces of many who thought we were blending in well enough. It feels like they (some invisible force of power) are pointing directly at us, singling us out, and locking the door behind them. The court has epitomized and solidified our status as real life, big bad imposters.
I tend not to think so much about my admission to Columbia. I think many of us probably try not to. Three years in, and questions like “how did I get here?” don’t feel as relevant anymore. But lately, the details feel more visceral again. I, with around 110 other students in my year, was admitted through the Questbridge Scholars Program, a scholarship program designed for low-income, high-achieving students from historically disadvantaged backgrounds to enter top colleges and universities. The application process perfectly aligns with most of the rhetoric about the lesser qualifications of an affirmative action admit: When I applied, the average applicant had a 1320 on the SAT and was in the top 10% of their graduating class, numbers significantly lower than Columbia’s median statistics. The scholarship offers a filter through which elite colleges look at your application: your background and identity. I wrote my personal essay about being from a downwardly mobile Venezuelan family. My racio-ethnic background was an enormous part of my story, as it is for so many of us. A textbook affirmative action case: I know I entered this school an imposter, and will leave it an even bigger one.
And so now we must reconcile, not with the syndrome, not with the general feeling of perpetual discomfort, but with actually being the imposter. Affirming language and a positive sense of self do not change these facts. There are no workshops on how to deal with being a successful imposter, or dealing with being perceived as one too. If before we were banking on the idea that we just “got lucky,” that we were admitted by the skin of our teeth, now our place here feels all the more elusive. We’ve realized how quickly it can all be taken away. We all deal with being an imposter differently.
Some of us do what our parents did: We assimilate. You trade your studded jeans and Nike Techs for a sweater vest and loafers. You code switch in class; I’m so soft-spoken. You start to learn their language: Greenwich is in Connecticut; coxswain means they’re on the rowing team; Goldman Sachs is investment banking, Morgan Stanley is also investment banking, and there is, in fact, a difference. You eat the unseasoned chicken, take your first employment offer, buy your parents a home (their first home), sponsor your abuela, tía, or prima to come to the States. You donate back to your alma mater with your disposable income because you’re grateful, you’re so grateful, the institution gave you a chance.
Some of us embrace total con artistry. Being here is an act of resistance accompanied with brown lip liner, and giant hoops, even if you never wore them before. You perform your identity so that no one can mistake who you are, blasting throwback reggaeton in your headphones, and sometimes on warmer, bolder days, straight from a speaker on Butler lawns. You exchange anxiety for an acrylic-tipped middle finger to the Man. You’re a little snide, you roll eyes when someone mentions their Ivy League-graduate parent (although you know in the future, you will be an Ivy League-graduate parent), and you wholeheartedly resent The Institution. You speak to the Dominican dining hall workers in Spanish, you know everyone’s name, and you shred every trace of Columbia when you go past 125th street for a plate of plantains. I’m not like them, you promise yourself, you promise them. You major in ethnic studies so that you can finally exhale during a discussion section. I’m such a scammer and a trickster, no one on Philosophy Lawn knows that I know every lyric of Atrévete-te-te. You get off on the nature of your rebellious identity: I’m like brown/Latine/Black/poor Elizabeth Holmes or Anna Delvey, except I don’t want to be a billionaire, I just want to make my parents proud.
These are the ways we begin to “construct confidence” as imposters: We assimilate, or we disavow. They’ve worked enough over the last few years to get us our degrees. But lately, both methods fall as flat as Greenwell’s workshops. The fact that we are the last people to enter this place in this way with federally-sanctioned support makes me reconsider our coping mechanisms. Now, I find myself wondering how the class of 2028 will be received. Will Black and brown students, especially if they come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, be imposters all the same? Will they be perceived as more deserving or less deserving? How will they make spaces for themselves, how will they find ways to exist at this institution?
The uncertainty of what it will look like for them means that we can’t take it for granted, because what would that make us? A solidarity-less people? Now, it feels like all of us have to be grateful. Thank you, Columbia. Thank you, Institution. I’m so lucky to be here, to be one of the last people to benefit from this federally-sanctioned opportunity for upward mobility.
We have been forced, as imposters, to develop a racial and class consciousness within the University. If we didn’t have it before, the pointed finger of the Supreme Court has ignited it. We can’t sit tight-lipped at the dinner party as Michael and Jessica coax you to deliberate, yay or nay? Don’t you remember what Rubén Blades sang in “Siembra?” Usa la conciencia latina, no la deje’ que se te duerma? No la deje’ que muera? Use your Latino consciousness, don’t let it sleep, don’t let it die. You look around and Pantone 292 suddenly looks so drab—a esta institución le falta sazón.
We know that the University needs us. Not just for the photo on their website or to report colorful statistics, not just as an accessory to wealthy white students or as a catalyst for their radicalization (I just found out society is unjust; a Black/brown/poor person told me during first-semester Contemporary Civilizations!). They need us because we push back. They need us because we know the real problem, and we can properly diagnose them for once. Because beyond colonial definitions of “belonging,” of “inside and outside,” of “purpose” and “deservedness,” we are able to see our identities within an institution more clearly. From the outside, our ivory tower has become a permeable, transparent one. Our perspectives contain nuance and multiplicity and truth, things impossible to replicate within institutions entirely occupied by the elite. “Imposter” or not, resister or adapter, we must be heard.