Not An Impostor
Not An Impostor
Commentary: SU master’s candidate shares a moving personal narrative on finding her footing as an international student.
he small town I grew up in, in Nigeria’s Niger-Delta region, supplied much of the country’s oil. Yet it was one of the most impoverished places in the country. There was military conflict and high crime rates and, at times, it felt as though we were separate from the rest of Nigeria. There were often shortages: butter, electricity, cash, and more. But there were always books. I figured out that I enjoyed reading when I was about 7. It must have been a pain to my parents; I wouldn’t speak to anyone if I had a book with me. After complaining at first, out of concern for my social skills, they soon began filling our house with books whenever they could afford to. I read whatever I could get my hands on.
I knew from a young age that my father had a lot of faith in my sisters and me. He made it clear by rewarding our successes with praise and reminding us that our failures would only define us if we let them. Eventually I would learn that not everyone shared his sentiments.
Having only daughters in a society that prioritizes sons meant people often told my parents not to bother spending a lot of money on our education. We’d just end up in some man’s kitchen, their thinking went. My dad refused to make that our reality. He decided that schools in America were the best. And the best was what he wanted for his children.
He worked tirelessly. His gas station business was doing well and we were comfortable, and so, in 2013, my parents sent my older sister to attend high school in the U.S. A year later, once she had graduated and moved on to university, my parents decided that I would follow in her footsteps. That’s how I found myself at a New England boarding school for my junior and senior years. Our hope was that it would make transitioning to college easier.
Syracuse University was ideal for me: it’s on the East Coast, making it relatively easy to travel to from Nigeria. It’s private, which was considered a great thing in my family’s eyes. And it’s far enough from distant relatives in the U.S. that I wouldn’t have to worry about running into nosy aunts and uncles. But even with my decent high school grades, my school’s college counselor implied that I wasn’t likely to get in anywhere. I believed him when he told me I would be lucky to get accepted into a school like SU. So when I got in on an early decision, I convinced my parents that I had to go here.
By the time my first semester rolled around, I thought I had jumped the major hurdles: the culture shock of my majority-white boarding school and the feeling of being an ‘other’ for the first time in my life. But the slights and barbs from my peers and from authority figures like my college counselor persisted. So did the resulting feeling that I was somehow undeserving of an education at a place like SU.
An article in The Journal of General Internal Medicine defines impostor syndrome as a phenomenon in which “high-achieving individuals who, despite their successes, fail to internalize their accomplishments and have persistent self-doubt and fear of being exposed as an impostor.” The behavioral health condition is also said to impair performance and contribute to burnout. For the untold numbers of people who live with impostor syndrome but are unaware of what it is, it can feel like a sense of mediocrity that can’t really be dislodged by any amount of success.
Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o told Time Out in 2016 that she experiences impostor syndrome with every role she plays. Michelle Obama told Newsweek in 2018 that her impostor syndrome doesn’t go away and that she often feels she shouldn’t be taken seriously. By every standard, both are extremely successful women. If they have to confront impostor syndrome, often born out of responses to their identities as Black women, of course the rest of us would be susceptible to it as well.
I began my undergraduate career in SU’s Communication and Rhetorical Studies program but was told by friends and family that I could only be taken seriously with a degree in the sciences, so I added on neuroscience to my major. There’s a running joke amongst some young Africans about the careers we have permission to pursue: “You can be a doctor, an engineer, a lawyer, or a failure.” Africans in the West are constantly reminded of the sacrifices our families have made to get us where we are. Careers that diverge too much from the first three fall under the “failure” category in a lot of African households. Older generations of Nigerians tend to believe that there is only one way to be successful, and it’s by following a career out of the aforementioned three. Such was the case in my family.
And yet I’ve always been a writer across different mediums: poetry, political opinion pieces, I even have a book in the works. So when my neuroscience studies didn’t go well I convinced my parents that my passion for storytelling could bring me success, and in turn, bring them honor. A whole new set of challenges awaited me.
My undergraduate classes post-dropping-my-science major were filled with students who had taken writing seriously for longer than I had. I’d never had a proper internship or any of the other professional experiences that seemed to be the norm. When I told a white classmate that I was considering a career in journalism, their response stung: “These companies are always looking for diversity, so I’m sure you’ll get something,” they said.
When I decided to apply to graduate programs, I knew they would be small and competitive, and when I accepted a spot at the Newhouse School, I found myself praying that I wouldn’t be the only Black person in my classes. At the beginning of the graduate program in early July 2020, then-President Donald Trump had announced a temporary rule stating that international students enrolled in mostly online classes would be required to return to their home countries. I didn’t know what that meant for my younger sister, attending university in Massachusetts, and for me. I remember not being able to think about anything else. When I first heard the news, I had to skip a class, just so I could walk around for a few hours to clear my head. The sense of insecurity that incident gave me still lingers, as if my life can be undone at any time by a person who’s never met me.
So when a professor implied that I applied to the Newhouse School solely as a way to stay in the U.S., all that I had managed to survive became meaningless: the distance from my parents, the crushing loneliness that comes with being so far from home. If one person thinks this way of me, my mind tells me, there must be others who agree.
Since that incident, every failure, big or small, feels branded onto my skin, permanent and visible. A simple error on an edit test becomes a sign telling my professors that I’m unserious, complaining about the world going up in flames has turned into me being ungrateful, and needing extra time on an assignment has turned into being lazy and unqualified. In my classes, I try to speak up even when I’m lost, contribute to conversations, and spar with my classmates, because those are things I can control. It doesn’t help that I’m surrounded by people who have more experience than I do and are mostly American. Because I am unlike them, I find it difficult to accept that they see me as their peer.
In feeling this way, I became afraid of opportunities and success. I put off job applications, held back story pitches, and stopped asking for help. I view the job and internship applications as the ultimate revealer of my imposter status. Here’s how I see it: By some miracle, I graduate from Newhouse and get an internship/job somewhere in the U.S. I show up to work. At the end of my first few days, I am told I do not fit the role. I’ve mentally created an exit strategy to move to a different country—Canada, it’s always Canada—should that take place.
When it comes to my writing as a journalist, I mostly see positive responses from my editors, both in class and elsewhere, when I take on stories about some form of Black suffering, like a grass-to-grace story or something about persevering through misery. Once, when I pitched a profile that was simple and feel-good, I was told that there was nothing interesting about it. I revised my pitch to focus on the subject’s suffering and received positive feedback nearly immediately. I assumed this was just good editing—until I was writing a story for a different editor and was told to go back to the subject and ask them about how racism is tied to their work, even though it had nothing to do with the story. While I am of the belief that everyone’s story needs to be told, I really enjoy writing about businesses, beauty, and entertainment.
While my experiences haven’t all been pleasant, I rejoice in my victories, fleeting as they may feel. I was sitting on a fellowship application due to feeling under-qualified, but I finally got the courage to send it in. Since starting the spring semester, I’ve been telling myself that my being here means I deserve to be here. If you tell yourself something enough, even if it’s untrue, you might start to believe it. Completing Newhouse’s graduate program will make me the first of my parents’ children to bring home a graduate degree. They’ve even started telling all their friends about how good my writing is and that I’m an important, sought-after journalist. When I’m interviewing someone for a story, any story, and they begin to really open up to me and allow me to find the heart of something, it feels calming and exciting at the same time, like I’m absolutely doing what I’m meant to be doing.
When I am able to, I tell myself that year after year, I have managed to beat several odds to get to the place I am at today. When I tell my parents about casual racism or not feeling deserving of where I am, they tell me that it doesn’t make much sense to give up now. “Why not keep going?” they ask. My father tells me, “Where you are going can only be greater than where you have been.” My mother says that “the worst thing that could happen is that they tell you no.” If that happens, I’ll continue until I find a yes.