It wasn’t until the second day of Math 115 my first semester here that I realized I was in way over my head. After having rushed into class, my backpack unzipped in a manner that screamed “frantic freshman” and my graphing calculator buried under a pile of notebooks and folders, I sat down next to a group of students, all discussing their future academic plans. Wide-eyed, I listened to each individual recount their aspirations to major in STEM fields and how this class was just their “easy” step before ultimately conquering the heights of Calculus II and III. In contrast, I only needed one quantitative reasoning credit, and since I liked calculus in high school, I figured this class would be the reasonable answer … right? As the future engineers continued to prattle on about topics I did not understand, I quickly realized I had never doubted my academic prowess more.

I’ve experienced these feelings of doubt not only in academics, but also in athletics. My first day of collegiate cross-country camp, after getting back from what was supposed to be a relatively comfortable seven-mile run (that left the freshmen gasping for air), I panicked. Thoughts raced through my head such as “these people are all so much more talented than me,” “I don’t deserve to be here” and ultimately “am I just going to make a big fool out of myself?” As the days passed, these negative thoughts continued to stir in the back of my mind, slowly but surely eating away at my self-confidence.

Unfortunately for myself and many others, this sinking feeling of self-doubt and total unworthiness is all too common — especially at a university such as this one where thousands of bright students are brought together to learn. Just recently, I realized this feeling has a name. In 1978, psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes coined the term “imposter syndrome” to describe the tendency of highly successful, highly intelligent people to believe their accomplishments are the result of luck, and that they are essentially total frauds. This description has a flair for the dramatic, but just think of the numerous times you have downplayed your past successes or doubted your abilities (despite palpable results) based on the thought that the people around you are so much more qualified or intelligent.

This phenomenon occurs not only in calculus class or in a varsity sport — but in the real world as well, from job interviews to acting in films to publishing critically acclaimed novels. Maya Angelou, of all people, said, “I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’ ”

I’m no Maya Angelou, but I can’t even count the number of times I’ve passed on submitting works of writing or applying for positions because I think I’m simply not good enough. Yet, by counting myself out from the get-go, I’m not being humble, I’m just being a coward and have no chance of ever achieving my dreams. Maybe it’s not inadequacy that we fear, but what lies beyond the vast expanses of our greatest potential.

I’m in no way telling you to be an obnoxious narcissist or to start believing you’re qualified to run this country, but just give yourself some credit. You made it here, you’re figuring things out and you’re still the same kick-butt person you were when you received your admission letter and laughed and danced around your kitchen — giddy at the idea of the numerous opportunities and dreams finally in your grasp.

Yes, I am on a team surrounded by some of the most talented girls in the nation, which can be intimidating, but it can also be incredibly motivating. I still doubt myself sometimes, but as the days wear on, I realize that I (along with all of my teammates) am here for a reason. It’s a definite adjustment, but that’s just the nature of life.

As for calculus? It was tough, but I made it through — just the same as everyone else. I soon realized that the future engineers who had so intimidated me at the beginning of the term were extremely helpful whenever I needed a problem explained or help with team homework. I struggled, but so did many people. My early feelings of inadequacy did not make me an “imposter” or “unqualified,” but simply human.

Kaela Theut can be reached at ktheut@umich.edu. 

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