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Greeting the Imposter

Is an Oxford degree truly worth the stress? What really should be worn for a lounge suit dress code? (spoiler alert, reader: I still do not know). Whether it manifests in academic or non-academic form, imposter syndrome has been, and always will be a notable facet of my Oxford experience. Despite being told (albeit, in a well-intentioned way) by one of my tutors that I shouldn’t be feeling imposter syndrome at this point in my degree, it hasn’t been something that I can escape. 

I am a proudly state-comprehensive educated, first-generation student, and whilst some may jokingly claim my degree consists of purely colouring-in, that does not mean I’ve never felt out of my depth in a tutorial setting. I distinctly recall the feeling of not understanding any of the words one of my humbly intelligent peers used in one of my first tutorials. After working myself to the ground to understand the topic beforehand, I was so incredibly fearful about admitting I had no clue what was being discussed, and instead left after the hour was up without making a significant contribution. Swiftly following this, I arranged a video call with the only person able to reassure my tiny brain about why the hell I was offered a place here (thanks Mum). Whilst I had expected the chats about privilege and family background, as a relatively self-assured person in my academic work, this meeting with the Imposter really threw me;I had no idea how to deal with him. 

Speaking to my (eternally wise) mum made me realise that working with rather than against these fears is the way to go from meeting the Imposter, to greeting and welcoming his presence into your everyday life. When you interviewed at Oxford, someone saw your potential and will have gone some way to back your corner in admissions discussions. You were chosen as someone with the potential to succeed in this environment;it would be a shame to prove them wrong. 

Whilst you will never escape the Imposter, it is, in my view, important to find ways to recognise and celebrate your successes, your efforts, and your journey to get to where you are now. Battling the experience to produce results is incredibly rewarding. In the sweltering heat of my final Prelims exam, I came across a word in one of the essay questions and had absolutely no idea what it meant. Instead of forcing myself to answer a different question, I used this doubt productively, providing my own (questionable) definition for the term and structuring my essay around it. Whilst it was by no means the highest mark I have received in an essay, a meeting with the Imposter in this split second could have forced me to, abandon all knowledge I had and lowered my mark significantly; instead, I embraced the feelings of doubt, finding ways to adapt to the encounter amongst the stress. In this moment, I accepted my failures, let go of my hopes of writing a perfect response and cultivated something that was the best I could do in the circumstances.

Leaving the exam, I was reassured by the fact that others had found difficulty in understanding this term too. Everyone meets the Imposter. 

Whilst it is true that some struggle more than others, it would be unfair to claim that it is an issue isolated to a certain subset of students. Imposter syndrome is a real, felt, unavoidable reality for everyone. I am, however, highly aware that this account of the issue is personal to me and I wish to note that reader, I still often meet the Imposter in a non-academic context;  it is a continuous, dynamic process of learning, with no one-fits-all method to solving these dilemmas. 

Nevertheless, I hope that one day you can greet, rather than meet your Imposter, whoever he/she/they may be in your many future encounters. And when you do meet again, take time to stop, breath, notice, reassess and respond to whatever they throw your way.   

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