A few weeks ago, I awoke to an email from the University of Oxford offering me a place to study for a MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management. I'll be honest with you, I cried when I read the email. Since then, I've felt a wide array of emotions. The first, of course, was happiness, followed by relief. Months of waiting was finally over. But what followed was rather unexpected.
I've been dealing with what I presume to be a fairly common problem that Oxford students face: impostor syndrome. Despite the number of times that I've reread that email, I keep thinking that I must have misread it. Perhaps there has been a mistake and the email wasn't actually addressed to me. I've received a confirmation email of my acceptance of their offer, so I know this isn't all just a dream. But I'm still having trouble and feel as if I don't really deserve this.
I'm lucky to have incredibly supportive friends and family who have all congratulated me many times over. My neighbor even told me that this is something I have earned and worked hard for, not a gift. I tell these well-wishers "Thank you," but what I really want to say is, "There probably was some mistake and I hope the administration doesn't find out because I really do want to be an Oxford student even though I'll probably be the slowest student there." I can't seem to shake this feeling that, if there really wasn't a mistake, then perhaps I got in on pure luck. My undergrad GPA was 3.77, hardly close to the 4.0 I would expect most American Oxford students to have obtained. My BS is from a CA State University, lacking the prestige of other schools in my area like UC Berkeley or Stanford. Maybe Oxford's new attention to admitting students from lesser known schools is really what pushed my admittance. I've reread my personal statement and I see glaring imperfections that somehow must have slipped past readers' eyes. And although I've worked in a number of varied positions during my undergrad and since graduating, none of them were particularly competitive, such as the many EPA, Antarctica, and Washington D.C. internships I failed to even interview for. Compared to other members of my family, immediate and extended, I wouldn't consider myself to be particularly brilliant. If none of my incredibly intelligent cousins have been admitted to Oxford, then how could I? I have difficulty spelling and performing simple mathematics in my head, for goodness sake!
Perhaps it's my over-analytical tendencies that got me into Oxford, for I've thought about where all of this doubt stems. In the back of my mind is a conversation on loop. When I was ten years old, I was asked by a friend's father if I knew what university I wanted to go to. I replied immediately with "Oxford!", which prompted a response that I have carried with me until this day. He chuckled and said "Do you really think you can get into Oxford? It's like the Harvard of England." The tone in which he said this made it very clear to me that he didn't think I could get into Oxford. I realize now that this was a terrible thing to tell to a ten year old girl, but at the time, I believed he was right. I quickly shifted from believing that I was as bright and talented as Hermione Granger to thinking I was of average, or less, intelligence. This man most likely has no memory of this instance, but this thinking troubled me until my junior year of college, when I finally realized that I might be pretty good at this whole school thing. One professor in particular really helped my confidence and I truly believe the letter of recommendation that she wrote for me got me into Oxford. When I first applied to Oxford, I thought about how good it would feel to tell that friend's dad to "suck it" if I were admitted, but I have completely lost that desire. It's almost as if discouraging children of their academic dreams creates long term issues.
To help rebuild the confidence I had as that ten year old who was proud to be a GATE student and win the President's Award, I've bought myself an Oxford t-shirt and a sticker for my car. I've worn the t-shirt longer than I probably should without washes in between. The t-shirt has gained a toothpaste stain and made me irrationally fearful that some Trader Joe's shopper will call me out for not being good enough to be an Oxford student. It has thus far failed to resolve me of impostor syndrome symptoms. Perhaps a few more days in this t-shirt and reading blogs about how to get over impostor syndrome will do the trick.