#BlackintheIvory Series: Application Season and Imposter Syndrome

Rhyann Robinson

July 3, 2020

     #BlackintheIvory was a twitter hashtag started by Joy Melody Woods and Dr. Shardé M. Davis, two Black women doctoral students at the University of Texas at Austin (more information on how they got it started here: https://www.chronicle.com/article/I-Was-Fed-Up-How/248955). The tweets that use the hashtag are “part of a call for higher education to confront systemic racism”. I use this hashtag as the title of this series of posts because it highlights Black experiences in yet another system not meant for us to thrive in. I seek to draw attention to those experiences and highlight my own as a Black woman in the Ivory tower.

     Application season is one of the most exciting and anxiety inducing parts of entering higher education. From selective enrollment high schools all the way up to PhD programs, applying to competitive schools is a unique as well as privileged experience. There’s nothing quite like spending upwards of $500 on application fees, test prep, and flights to visit just to get your education. Let’s face it, Application season is hard on everyone. But being Black in these spaces of higher education, even when only in the application process, presents it’s own particular set of challenges. 

     When I have been applying for schools since before I remember. Yup, you guessed it, I’m a private school kid. I had to apply to get into kindergarten (literally what is our education system, how do you test a four year old?). But my experience applying to colleges while in my senior year of high school made my identity as a young Black woman particularly salient to me. Coming from a school with only 400 students, I had the attention that every student applying to college deserves from their college counselor. Everything was set up for me. My mom put up the funds for me to visit schools before I applied, I was able to sit and write my essays with my counselor, and pay my fees with no waiver; these are among the many privileges during a process that is already a privilege. Many Black kids struggle with these aspects of the application process. My personal struggles and fears came from another, more internal place that I think a lot of Black people, particularly Black womxn, experience. 

     I was afraid of “pulling the Black card”. And I always wondered whether other people were too. I never asked my friends because there was an unspoken rule of not detailing our application processes to each other. I was afraid that I would confirm what my white counterparts thought about affirmative action: that I would get a spot over them just because I was Black and for nothing else. I was afraid that I wouldn’t get in at all and I would have to explain to my friends celebrating their academic achievements that I could not participate because I was destined to be a bum on my moms couch for the rest of my life. That last one is extreme but it’s how I felt. 

     What do all of these feelings have in common: they were my first experiences with imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is marked by constant feelings of self doubt and inadequacy despite evident success. So even though I had great grades, was co-leading a club, had people in my life that would never let me fail, and affirmative action was nonexistent in the 8 California schools that I applied to, there was nothing to stop that pit in my stomach that said I couldn’t do it. 

     Even though I got to live up my California dream in college, Imposter syndrome followed me like the monster in my closet. As Black womxn, we are told that we are not good enough, that we have to work twice as hard for half as much, and still feel like we don’t deserve everything we have. This is how I felt when I got into my masters program and how I felt when I, just recently, got into my clinical psychology program. I was happy beyond belief, but it felt like some stroke of luck or chance that I was even interviewed. I did not attribute these accomplishments to my hard work and dedication, I just figured they needed to fill their diversity quota. 

     Then something happened. Last week I had a zoom call with my new cohort. They are all womxn. And three of us are Black. The elation that surged through me is indescribable. That was the first time, in any academic space, where I truly felt like I should be there. Not only because it shattered my “diversity quota” myth, but because I felt seen. I felt like I, and these other Black women, worked hard for our place, and we deserved to be here. 

     I hope to continue to beat imposter syndrome whenever I can throughout my career as an academic. Ironically enough, I decided that I wanted to become a professor to always be in a space of learning, so that I will feel confident in my knowledge and feel free to speak my mind. I still believe that I can achieve that, even if it’s only in small moments. 

     While I am glad the application process is over for me (at least for the next 6 years), the battle with imposter syndrome wages on. And if you’ve ever experienced it like I have, I hope you look forward to kicking its ass like I do!

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