My first college orientation was spent fresh off a 16-hour drive. I traipsed through the foreign streets of Boston in hundred-degree August weather for three days on end. Every day was filled with presentations, activities and tours, all of which commenced with a “Welcome to Emerson College” presentation to the 900 students of the freshman class.
For my second college orientation a year later, my family departed from our house in Northwest Michigan at 10 a.m. in order to arrive for my 2 p.m. move-in time at the University of Michigan. That night, all the 10,000 new students gathered in Chrysler Center for an informal welcome from the administration. Despite there being less heat, less chaos and less fanfare all together, those first few days in Ann Arbor left me feeling disoriented. Already, the sensation that I didn’t belong started creeping in.
I had transferred to the University of Michigan at the beginning of sophomore year for two reasons — my major, and financial aid.
The first school I attended was a small, private liberal arts college in the middle of Boston. It boasted a small collection of highly tailored majors in specific fields, a catalogue of successful alumni and a price tag I spent nine months trying to justify. By the end of the first semester, I had fallen in love with Boston, but I simultaneously fell out of love with my major. Plus, there was no way I would be able to convince my parents to cosign more loans. I was already familiar with the University of Michigan from growing up in state, and I knew that Michigan had a remarkable financial aid program and a linguistics major. It was also only four hours from my hometown. Naturally, I applied — though it was not my first time applying to the school.
My history with the University of Michigan actually starts a year earlier. I was sitting in my final high school science class of my senior year when I was called into the advising office. My advisor told me about the University of Michigan’s Go Blue Guarantee, dubbed the “Hail Scholarship” at the time. My advisor knew my family history — that neither of my parents had attended college and that my dad worked a skilled-trade job that wouldn’t allow my family to contribute financially to my college education. The University of Michigan, I was told, was the best opportunity I had available to me.
I left that meeting feeling torn. The University of Michigan had never been a school I even considered, not with my entire family being Michigan State fans and one of my uncles even teaching there. My parents hated the University of Michigan for no good reason — still hate it, in fact — but I applied anyway, telling myself it was my Hail Mary school. If I got in, I would attend; if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be heartbroken.
When I got the rejection email late one January night after I’d come home from wind symphony practice, I was devastated. I told no one, though, about that feeling of disappointment. It was a highly competitive year, I told myself. Even the most well-rounded student in my class didn’t get in, so why would I?
When I applied again, I remember the disbelief I felt when I opened the acceptance email. I hadn’t told any of my friends I was applying, and I had to keep myself from crying as I left the office I worked in at the time. I cried in the lobby of my dorm building on the phone with my mother.
For a few months, I was beyond elated — that is, until the imposter syndrome kicked in.
My first source of self-doubt was the idea that I only got in because I was a transfer student, specifically a second-year transfer student. No one transfers after one year, I thought. I assumed that the vast majority of transfer students are people who went to a local community college for two years and come to the University of Michigan as a junior. My advantage was that I wasn’t in that applicant pool. It must have been easier for me to get in, otherwise I wouldn’t have. The reality of this was the total opposite—the majority of transfer students are, in fact, second-year students. But knowing that still didn’t make me feel like I deserved to be here.
But the second and more damaging conclusion I came to was that I only got in only because I fit a demographic. Because of my family’s low income level, I receive the highest amount of financial aid that the University offers: full coverage of tuition, fees and room and board. One of the big selling points of the University is its financial aid program, but in order to say that they offer this, they have to actually give it to a non-zero number of students. And in my mind, I was only accepted to fill this number. It’s likely not true, but even to this day, it is something I struggle with constantly.
It wasn’t long after those first few days on campus that I started to feel like I did not belong at this school. The first friends I made had parents who were alumni, or who were doctors or lawyers. The people I met used their parents’ credit cards to pay for bubble tea and didn’t even have to think about how much money a textbook was going to cost. I talked with other students about the application process and how their parents helped them along the way, cheered with them when they were accepted or comforted them when they didn’t get accepted to an Ivy League school.
I might have moved to Ann Arbor after spending a year living in the largest city I’d ever stepped foot in, but this was a different world. I could figure out how to ride the trains from Chinatown to Harvard Square, but I didn’t know how to talk to people who could have actually attended Harvard.
I’m from a speck of a town in Northwest Michigan, born to a father who works with metal, and a mother who had me at age 18. My high school had to change from semesters to trimesters so more students could fail more classes and still graduate on time. I was not in the top 10% of my class — I was hardly in the top 20%. I played zero sports and did not participate in theater, quiz bowl or choir. I played the flute (badly) and was a casual member of the National Honor Society. Everything about me was remarkably average. I was just a high school student with anxiety and depression trying to graduate and maybe, if I was lucky, make it through college without a mountain of debt.
I shouldn’t have gotten in. And yet, here we are.
It doesn’t take much to feel inadequate on a college campus given the social hierarchy, the classism and the rigorousness of the coursework. They tell us the pressure is to make us the “leaders and the best,” but sometimes it just feels like it drowns us. And I think it’s okay to feel like that sometimes.
One of my closest friends at the University is beyond brilliant. She’s an engineer and her mind impresses me every time I talk to her. Her “reach” school was an Ivy League. I asked her about this one time, and she tried to play it off as if it was some sort of pipe dream, something that wasn’t really a reality. Months later, we were leaving a friend’s apartment together and started talking about how much it feels like we don’t belong here. Like we’re not smart enough, not good enough, not well-rounded enough. She is, to this day, one of the smartest people I know, and even she has felt inadequate.
Another friend, another engineer, told me that she wasn’t very good at math. I laughed and asked her why she wanted to be an engineer if she wasn’t good at math. She told me that she enjoyed it, and even though it was a lot harder for her, and sometimes she found class materials more difficult than other students, it was worth it. She is one of the most creative people I know as well—she’s a photographer, embroiderer, nature enthusiast and so much more. And even though she is one of the most talented people I know, she has talked about feeling out of place.
It is so easy to fall into a cycle of thinking that you’re not good enough, that you’ve cheated the system somehow or that you cannot compare to the other students on campus. What gives me a bit of peace, though, is knowing that even my friends, who I know are brilliant and talented and wonderful, also feel the same way sometimes.
For me, it is remarkably easy to slip into the mindset that my family’s educational history and my socioeconomic status define me, or make me somehow unworthy. Those thoughts haven’t disappeared, and I doubt they ever will. I take some solace knowing that so many other students on campus also feel this way, and that it is okay and normal to feel out of place. But the truth is, if you are somebody reading this that can relate, you are enough. You belong here.