When I was applying for college in 2013, the School District of Philadelphia was in the middle of making budgets cuts. Public schools across the city were forced to let go teachers, nurses, faculty, and staff, which honestly exacerbated our already dying faith in the city’s public education system. My high school, in particular, lost not only a few teachers but also our only guidance counselor. My graduating class was forced to figure out the college application process on our own, and as a first-generation student, I didn’t have parents or family I could turn to for guidance. Instead, I resorted to Google to answer most of my questions, and when Google failed me, I reached out to a number of different admissions offices for answers. I was set on attending either community college or a state school, whichever was most affordable and closest to home.
Then my uncle shared his thoughts. He reminded me that schools like Stanford and the Ivy League wouldn’t consider kids like myself. “Your family’s on welfare, you can’t pay for those schools. Poor kids aren’t really Ivy League-material anyway.” Having graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, he clearly knew what he was talking about—I convinced myself of that. I initially humored him and agreed, because what kid from the hood ever had the fighting chance to join the elite? The odds were slim to none. But his comments struck a chord, and this quickly sparked a fire deep within me: I wanted to prove him wrong.
So I decided to apply to his alma mater.
Having been born and raised in Point Breeze, a predominantly African American, Cambodian, and historically low-income neighborhood in Philadelphia, it never dawned on me that kids like myself would ever attend an Ivy League institution. Communities like mine are trapped in a cyclical process that is, and continues to be, perpetuated by poverty, systematic oppression, and an unjust criminal system. I grew up with people who dropped out of school, worked under-the-table jobs, or sold drugs. Many of my friends had multiple encounters with authority and ended up in juvie or behind bars. I wasn’t on track to pursue higher education, let alone attend one of the world’s most competitive institutions. But I took my shot anyway, and despite the discouragement, I really wanted to prove my uncle wrong.
And I did.
I was accepted Early Decision to the University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2018.
This was an unexpected milestone for not only myself but also my family. I became the first to attend not only college, but also an Ivy League institution. My acceptance was a testament to my parents’ endless sacrifices and going to college would redeem any and all efforts they put into raising me. My parents didn’t have to worry about affording my $70,000-a-year-tuition because Penn’s financial aid package, combined with the scholarships I was awarded, would allow me to attend college tuition-free—what a blessing.
When I entered college, my confidence quickly took a turn for the worst. It spiraled, and I started to question my capabilities, my worth, my merits. My inner-city, public high school education didn’t prepare me for the academic and competitive rigor that eventually crippled me. My experiences growing up in Point Breeze also didn’t groom me to live among the top 1 percent. I wasn’t used to being surrounded by kids whose Canada Goose parkas, Moncler jackets, and Louis Vuitton bags could altogether end poverty three times. I didn’t believe I deserved to be at Penn. No, I was convinced that I was lucky.
Scientific American describes this feeling as imposter syndrome, “a pervasive feeling of self-doubt, insecurity, or fraudulence despite often overwhelming evidence to the contrary.” I met many students who suffered from imposter syndrome, especially during times of club recruitment and the job and internship search. But for me, I felt it in my bones. I know we’re not supposed to compare ourselves to our peers, but that’s obviously much easier said than done. Midway through my first semester at Penn, I recognized the stark differences between me and my classmates regarding our financial and educational upbringings. I didn’t graduate from a top-tier high school; I didn’t have IB, AP, or honors courses adorning my transcript (my high school didn’t even offer them); my standardized test scores were sub-par; I wasn’t the son of surgeons, or lawyers, or bankers, or senior executives at Fortune 500 companies; I wasn’t involved in Science or Math Olympiad teams nor did I win national awards for Speech and Debate (I didn’t even know these clubs existed until I got to college).
I wasn’t a lot of things.
I didn’t do a lot of things.
I didn’t have a lot of things.
But I guess there was one thing that I did have: potential. I met a community of first-generation, low-income students at Penn whose resiliency and grit reminded me that we were truly a force to be reckoned with. They introduced me to mentors and resources I never thought I needed. They challenged me to think more critically about my intersectional identities. They created the space for me to unpack my deeply rooted insecurities and to grapple with many layers of self-doubt and confusion. I connected with students who understood the burden of balancing multiple responsibilities outside the academic realm, students who continued to (financially) support their families despite being hundreds of miles away, students who also struggled to fit in at Penn. I felt empowered because I no longer felt alone—I had my own community. We have navigated life without the same luxury and resources many of our wealthier, more privileged counterparts have been able to afford. We learned to not only grow up fast, but also thrive despite all odds. I just needed to be reminded of that.
In the last four years, my potential has resulted in a number of successful initiatives, accolades, and leadership positions, and I say this without the intended air of arrogance. It took me quite some time to believe that I was as capable and determined as any other student, and I feel a bit embarrassed for not having possessed those thoughts earlier. I am proud of myself, the work that I’ve done, and the impacts that I’ve left. Despite battling my own insecurities, I’ve grown in confidence, and I hope that students who resonate with me may ground themselves as well. I look forward to when they no longer feel lucky but rather deserving.
I appreciate that Penn believed in me, as well as in hundreds of other students like myself. This isn’t to say that my imposter syndrome disappeared overnight or that I’ve completely rid myself of it. I’m sure I will be afflicted with many more moments of insecurities, but I am confident that I will be able to address and combat them more effectively given the community of first-generation, low-income students, alumni, and allies I now have.
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Note: I am fortunate to have been awarded a Fulbright grant as well as secure a job in San Francisco following my fellowship. I recognize that there are many first-generation, low-income students who are still figuring out their lives and their future. If you have any questions or concerns or need a sounding board, I want to be able to offer myself in whatever capacity I have. Feel free to email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or connect with me via LinkedIn. I’d be more than happy to help Ü
Photo Credit: Wenting Sun (2018)