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The Comparison Complication: Penn State Student Leaders Discuss Imposter Syndrome

Success. At times, it feels unattainable and like everyone else around you has achieved it, whether it be through building a life-long friend group, gaining one of those coveted paid internships, or setting the curve for the make-or-break final.

Penn State’s motto is “We Are” but sometimes it doesn’t feel like “we,” and the spiraling begins.

Imposter syndrome is the phenomenon of doubting one’s own skills and accomplishments. You are the imposter, and everyone else is doing something right. You just slipped through the cracks thanks to dumb luck.

This syndrome comes with a whole host of uneasy feelings, from self-loathing to isolation. Imposter syndrome is overwhelmingly common. Its effects can be debilitating, hinging on those affected who keep quiet out of shame.

To combat this seemingly taboo subject, we gathered six student leaders from various organizations to talk about their battle with insecurity and how they cope. Even those who are deemed Penn State’s “most successful” struggle, too.

A Common Struggle

From social anxiety to searching for one’s purpose, imposter syndrome worms its way into every aspect of identity.

Seniors Clayton Geisel and Sydney Gibbard focused on their academic insecurities and competition within their majors as the source of their anxiety.

Geisel, an architectural engineering student, 2023 THON family relations captain, and 2022 Blue Band president found the time commitment for his major a roadblock.

“Engineering is tough, I think specifically within architectural engineering, there’s so much class time, just being present and contributing to class conversations,” Geisel said. “It definitely is competitive. I think in the back of our minds, we are constantly comparing ourselves to our peers.”

Gibbard, the outgoing University Park Undergraduate Association (UPUA) president and a Lion Ambassador, has dealt with issues of imposter syndrome in both the medical and engineering fields on the pre-medicine track.

Gibbard often struggles with gender expectations in her engineering major.

“I feel like I need to put in a lot of time to do my work. I definitely feel like in group projects, people seem to think that women work hard for their grades instead of being naturally intelligent,” Gibbard said.

Within the medical field, Gibbard found there is immense pressure to be top of the class and get the best residency program. Even once in residency, the struggle can continue with comparisons of medical board exam scores and who got what attending position.

“I think that environment is extremely motivating in some ways but also extremely toxic and draining,” Gibbard said. “I think that in engineering, while the coursework itself might be more stressful, the environment isn’t as much like that. It’s a little bit more understanding.”

Moving to a more creative field, Paige Taylor is a junior film major who is president of Delta Kappa Alpha (DKA), Penn State’s co-ed film fraternity. Due to the high expectations of wealth, fame, and the Hollywood dream, Taylor notices some having issues within her major.

“I think everyone in the film world, entertainment world, and the art world has had issues with imposter syndrome 100%. Life moves at a very fast pace. It’s very easy to get overwhelmed,” Taylor said. “Film feels like something that’s very unattainable and secretive, that you don’t really know how it works.”

Penn State Black Caucus President Ava Starks is a junior studying philosophy and also has had issues with her major. As opposed to the standard degree, Starks is working toward a capstone project focused on culturally diverse event management.

Starks, who doesn’t have set prerequisites or a mainstream academic plan, finds it difficult to gauge where she stands compared to other students. She describes her schooling as sometimes isolating with the same amount of schoolwork as a normal student but organized in a different form.

“Transitioning into school between breaks makes imposter syndrome kick in,” Starks said. “I start to compare what I’m doing to my peers and other students on campus. It always just feels like I’m not doing enough.”

The president of the Nittany Lion Consulting Group, Kayla Anthony, is majoring in management with a double minor in history and philosophy. Anthony shares the same general feeling of inadequacy as Starks.

“There were definitely moments where I was taking classes or doing club activities and it’s just like, ‘What am I doing compared to others?’ Especially when you see people get leadership positions earlier than I did when we’re both at the same level,” Anthony said.

Maansi Shah, the president of Women in Business and a junior studying management information sciences and economics mainly focused on social imposter syndrome.

Fear of rejection and the feeling of self-doubt is the main competitor to starting college friendships. This anxiety causes a vicious cycle of people simultaneously wanting someone to reach out to them but also not reaching out to others.

“I tell my roommates all the time that I want more friends and they’re like, ‘Why don’t you just shoot a text?’ And I’m like, ‘I can’t do that. It would be too awkward,'” Shah said. “It’s a mental block to work through, and I’m still getting over it.”

Despite the long list of credentials and overwhelming schedules, it’s clear that imposter syndrome doesn’t choose anyone specific. No matter how professional or responsible someone is, it’s sometimes just a convincing performance.

Changing The Mindset

Every person we talked to had a coping mechanism to help combat self-doubt and insecurity. While ranging in specific actions, all of the strategies fell into three categories: improving self-confidence, building a support system, and not putting too much pressure on oneself.

Starks and Shah both have similar ways of keeping positive affirmations. Starks suggests journaling to stay grounded.

“Whenever I feel like, ‘OK, I’m not doing enough academically, or I’m not prepared enough for my post-graduation plans,’ I take a second to write how I am exactly feeling then I reflect on all the opportunities I have had that have worked out,” Starks said.

Starks also considers all the opportunities that didn’t go as planned, believing that things happen for a reason.

Shah has a more silly approach by keeping a “hype folder” on her computer. Inside contains screenshots of every, “Good job,” “I really liked how you …,” and, “You’re really great at …,” compliment in one easy-to-find place.

“I’m aware it’s a little cringe, but it truly does help,” Shah said. “When I’m having a very down moment, I go back to what someone said about me. I think the biggest thing with imposter syndrome is beating yourself down. Other people would never say those things about you that you would say to yourself.”

Gibbard enjoys seeing the success of a final product. It’s physical proof of one’s skills and abilities that is hard to disprove.

“I feel like the biggest validation for me is seeing a big project go through and knowing that I contributed to it behind the scenes,” Gibbard said.

Taylor is a major advocate for joining an organization. Prior to joining DKA, she was feeling the pressure of meeting new people. Now, she helps run a close-knit organization of creators, encouraging the collaborative nature of the film community.

“Once you find people who can support you and not just like, ‘Oh yeah it’s good,’ but also be able to give you constructive criticism to help you better the final product and better your skills for the future,” Taylor said.

Geisel agrees, commending the Blue Band as one of the biggest support systems in his college career. He is an adamant supporter of joining campus organizations.

“Through the ups and downs of everything, you’re in it with these people. And it’s honestly incredible what you’re able to accomplish sometimes, it’s awesome,” Geisel said. “Having one person that is going through similar experiences to bounce ideas off of is an invaluable resource to take advantage of.”

Starks also specifically encourages students of color to find their group.

Starks ended up not coming to campus until her second year, missing the crucial time when it’s “acceptable” to meet new people. She praises her organizations for how they helped her overcome that disconnection.

“Penn State is a predominantly white institution, and it feels very lonely, and you can feel outcasted all the time,” Starks said. “Having that core group of people that you can lean on is so important, and it would definitely change the trajectory of your undergraduate career.”

Anthony has a very go-with-the-flow mindset, determined to work hard, but also not falter when complications arise. She advises people to expect acceptions and rejections and take life day by day.

“It’s not just a straight shot. I got rejected from a position in the same organization that I’m president of now,” Anthony said. “I don’t think I would be president if I got the first position. It’s not always easy. There’s definitely hard days.” 

Geisel also focuses on rationalizing when stressed, explaining how this is still currently a period of growth and learning.

“Students should realize that it’s OK to not have everything together, it’s OK to not have the answers and to be struggling,” Geisel said. “Just to realize that we are all people and that you don’t need to be perfect all the time.”

Gibbard, describing herself as more introverted, learned to be herself instead of giving into the pressure mindset. As she became president of UPUA, Gibbard found herself losing touch with her members and becoming no longer relatable.

“When you work, it might not feel like it’s speaking for itself, but it totally does,” Gibbard said. “People love people who commit to their work and are committed to getting things done. It’s not healthy for people to be wrapped up in the drama of student organizations.”

Imposter syndrome is an epidemic that prevents growth and excellence. However, the situation isn’t hopeless. Insecurity thrives in silence, and the only way to subdue it is to bring it out into the light.

“You’ll probably go through it multiple times in your life, it’s like that saying, ‘Get comfortable with being uncomfortable,'” Anthony said.

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About the Author

Marie Moyer

Marie is a fourth-year student majoring in journalism and minoring in sociology. She loves being fiscally irresponsible at local farmers markets, watching niche documentaries on HBO, and going to Penn State hockey games as "self-care." You can reach her on Instagram - @_mariemoyer_ or send her suggestions (and cat photos) via her email - [email protected].

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