One of the beautiful things about being in a “small” university is you hear about a lot more events and opportunities outside of your major. If your university is elite, it’s more likely that these events are led by the “top” minds in the country, maybe even the world. One of the groups that resonate with me at MIT is the First-Generation/Low-Income community. Through this group, I was invited to a discussion about a book. The book, The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students, is written by Anthony Abraham Jack and published by Harvard University Press. It explores why low-income students feel a sense of otherness or suffer from imposter syndrome more than their wealthy peers. After reading the book, I began asking myself which of these ideas applied to me and which didn’t. What specifically makes me feel like an outsider on campus? What is making me hesitate to connect with my peers and professors? During the book discussion, I shared some of my thoughts about why I still felt uncomfortable on campus and what this book didn’t address for me. The big three were being older, being a veteran, and not graduating high school. One of the facilitators came back with something that seemed blatantly obvious, but I had failed to realize: having an intersectional identity can magnify feelings of imposter syndrome. I hadn’t realized that I identified myself by my experiences, and when they come together, they make me feel out of place around my peers.
Undoubtedly, many people feel insecure when they can’t find people they connect and identify with around them. According to Wick Sloane’s annual survey of veteran enrollment at highly selective colleges, MIT had 11 veteran undergraduate students in 2020. I personally know most of these veterans, and I’m confident that more are graduating than being admitted. With no centralized office and a voluntary email list that you have to know about to get on, there’s also a strong possibility that there are veterans being admitted every year who are not able to find the others. Being in the military, this is strange. When we relocate, we either have a friend or a friend-of-a-friend at our next duty station. We reach out and ask for advice or help until we get our feet under us. Even in community college, I was able to find a veteran office, veteran lounge, and other veterans in my classes. While one of the main reasons given for promoting higher numbers of veteran undergraduates at elite colleges is to ensure that the future wealthy and political ruling class of the nation has at least met somebody who’s served before, I’m often worried about outing myself to strangers. I want to make friends, not stand out as the weird old lady who’s probably a gun-toting conservative. In case you were wondering, most of my dorm-mates feel old when they turn 20. And this brings me to another reason that I feel like an outsider: I feel old. My partying years are behind me. Staying up until 4 in the morning to work on a group project and then skipping lecture the next day does not work for me. It takes me much longer to learn new things than it used to. Finally, there’s no way I can spend enough time on social media to keep up with the latest fads and slang. My age is the thing I’m most insecure about when it comes to connecting with my peers; however, there’s one more huge piece contributing to my imposter syndrome: I didn’t graduate high school. I don’t mean I was homeschooled and got my GED; I mean, I straight up dropped out my senior year when I realized I wasn’t going to graduate on time. Whenever I struggle with my studies, I wonder if I’m just not smart enough. I wonder if the school was designed for geniuses who took every AP class and had GPAs higher than 4.0. Or worse, I wonder if the school is just as difficult as every other university, and I can’t handle the whole process in general.
Logically, I know these thoughts aren’t true. Almost everybody struggles with something, and you only notice the students who understand the lecture well enough to ask the professor about things you haven’t heard about. It’s not the same students in every class, and it’s not every other student in the class. More importantly, there aren’t large groups of students who are all the same and connect on a wealth of shared experiences. I like to call MIT a sandbox environment. They bring together some of the most interesting and unique people in the world and give them the financial and academic support to bring their ideas to life. A person in my English class seemed very eloquent, which I found annoying, so I Googled him and found out he used to tour around the world as a child giving speeches about why plastic straws are bad for the environment. I only recently discovered my physics partner was the first girl from her country to win a medal in the International Math Olympiad. How badass is that? While I feel like I don’t fit in and nobody is like me, this may be the point of an elite institution. Everybody is one-of-a-kind, and everybody deserves to be there. It is in our best interest to embrace and explore these differences in each other, as well as being vulnerable and open about what makes us special. This will enable us to connect more deeply and grow together, whichever stage of life we’re in.