I panicked on my second night at summer camp last year. It wasn’t the kind with outdoor activities and s’mores and tents, but it was an academic program at a prestigious university, where we stayed in dorms and made PowerPoints and eagerly participated in fiery debates.
It was nearing curfew, and I didn’t want my roommates to hear me, so I ran to the courtyard and desperately looked for an empty bench. When I found one, I dialed my friend’s number. As soon as he picked up, I burst into tears.
“I don’t know what I’m doing here,” I began, trying to muffle the sound of my sobbing. “I feel like such an idiot. Everyone is so smart, and I feel like I know nothing.”
I prided myself on getting accepted into a competitive summer program, and I was excited about being given the opportunity to be around smart kids. There would be no one to call me a nerd or ask me to do their homework for them, like they did back in my high school. But I felt like I had trespassed onto unfamiliar territory.
“What’s wrong?” my friend asked. “You’re the smartest person I know. You shouldn’t be crying.”
He had touched on exactly what I was nervous about: I got the best grades at our low-pressure public school: Maybe I wasn’t smart. Maybe the work was actually easy. I knew the school that I was attending could never compare to the rigorous prep schools and private academies attended by my peers at the program. I wasn’t a part of their world.
“These kids come from rich-ass families,” I continued. They’re Ivy League legacy kids, and they go to schools where the average ACT score is like, 30. You know what ours is? Sixteen. There’s a girl here whose parents are paying $40,000 a year for her to attend boarding school! Can you believe that?!” l was, it must be said, kind of freaking out.
He sighed, obviously frustrated with me. “Actually, our school’s average ACT score is 19 now, isn’t it?” he said. “I know you don’t go to some fancy prep school, but you are smart. Pretty sure it doesn’t matter where you go to school, as long as you do your best and reach your potential. And you are. Stop crying. OH MY GOD, I hate it when you cry.”
I thought about what he said, and all my possible responses:
“I READ THE DAMN NEWS AND I KNOW WHAT’S GOING ON IN THE WORLD OF INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS YET EVERYONE STILL SEEMS TO KNOW MORE THAN ME.”
“WE HAVE A DISCUSSION GROUP AFTER EVERY LECTURE AND I NEVER SPEAK BECAUSE I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO SAY OR HOW TO THINK LIKE THE OTHER KIDS.”
“OH MY GOD WE HAVE SOME TYPE OF SIMULATION TO DO NEXT WEEKEND, AND EVERYONE SAYS IT’S LIKE MODEL U.N. EXCEPT THAT I’VE NEVER DONE THAT BECAUSE WE DON’T EVEN HAVE A MODEL U.N. TEAM AT OUR SCHOOL.”
Instead, I just said, “I feel like shit. But you’re right.”
I was still scared to speak up during discussion groups or raise my hand during lectures—to show that I had opinions and ideas and solutions to offer, too. I decided that my thoughts and intellectual capability were inferior to everyone else’s. My opinions, ideas, and solutions meant nothing, especially as compared to those from kids who had started their own non-profit organizations, publications…IPHONE APPLICATIONS?! I felt like a nothing.
One day, I was a part of a group project where my partners knew exactly what they were doing and how to approach the task at hand. Even though l had a few ideas about how to contribute, I felt completely lost and hesitant—they were so smart, and l wasn’t used to being challenged. I seemed to be handed the easiest tasks by my project partners, something I usually did at school when I was assigned to a group. I wasn’t the leader anymore. I was the follower. I anticipated a facilitator coming up to me with a letter or note of some sort that said, We are so sorry to have made you go through all the trouble, but this was a mistake—please leave. I was a fake, a pretender, an impostor. There’s a name for this kind of anxiety that’s based on that last feeling: Impostor syndrome.
Despite my academic anxieties at camp, I was comfortable in many other ways, most of them social. I frequently cracked jokes when I didn’t know what else to say. People thought I was funny, and pretty, and good at doing my makeup, but I didn’t feel very smart. I wasn’t contributing anything academically, but I told my classmates stories and I listened to theirs. When I wasn’t feeling intimidated, it was so fascinating to be in that world full of intelligence and experience and culture, where everyone had traveled here or there, lived in this country or that one, and spoke multiple languages. I was given firsthand perspectives on what it was like to live in Hong Kong, in London, in Seoul, in Rwanda. I met a girl who had formed a non-profit with her sister that aided women suffering from obstretic fitsula, a condition I had heard of but never actually knew the extreme detriments of until I spoke with my newfound friend. I spent every day learning and understandings things in a different way than I had understood them before. Still, it felt like I was never teaching.
I met a boy about three days into camp. I was at lunch and was looking desperately to sit down somewhere, and I found an empty seat at his table. A few minutes into the conversation I had already found myself drawn to his charm and his sense of humor, something that I would find annoying on any other regular day with any other regular boy back home at high school, but being at an academic camp and knowing he was smart made it all the more exciting. I mixed around with a lot of different kids, and found myself hanging out with a different group every day, and yet I hadn’t seen him around until that day at lunch. A few days after we first met, people noticed we were being flirtatious. I brushed it off and described it as ridiculous and amusing and temporary and “not important enough to talk about, haha” whenever someone asked me about it. I wasn’t ashamed—I truly didn’t think it was a big deal. One day, I whispered to a friend as we were walking to lunch from our discussion group that the guy in front of us was hot (AND HE WAS HOT?! I DON’T THINK THERE’S ANYTHING WRONG WITH POINTING OUT HOT PEOPLE), and someone heard me. He looked at me, raised his eyebrows, and said, “You’re so thirsty.”
I was taken aback. I didn’t think acknowledging someone’s attractiveness had anything to do with being desperate. Then I remembered that he had asked about that boy at lunch and me the day before, giving me that very same expression, the raised eyebrows and all. It occurred to me that he probably wasn’t the only one that thought of me this way. All of a sudden, I cared about things l hadn’t before—I held everyone in such high esteem, and what they thought of me mattered.
When I sat with my friends and my assumed love interest passed by, they tsk-tsked me, and then they called me thirsty. And then desperate. Grabbing lunch or frozen yogurt, or when we were sitting outside on the benches, there would be one or two people in each of the different cliques I hung out with that asked me about him, or insinuated that I was wasting my time with that boy. I would laugh it off, or groan, or beg them not talk about it. Sometimes, I brought up our flirtation to make light of it—and so the topic could be exhausted and we could move onto something else. I never really expressed my offense. Once, of my friends teasingly called me a ho. And of course they were joking, they had to be, right? Or, maybe they were thinking this: I knew nothing except well, how to flirt with boys. Back in school, I may have been the designated nerd, but here, I was the designated airhead.
I often felt hurt at the prospect of people thinking of me this way, but I was never ashamed. Being flirtatious was fun, and inadvertent, too, because it’s a part of who I am. I enjoyed talking to my all-Desi group of girl friends about it, and laughing about it, and whispering about it because it tied us together and brought us closer in some ways. I could never want to take that back, crush or no crush. During the last week of the program, I sat with one of the facilitators for lunch. She asked me how I was liking the program and if I had made any friends.
“I made so many friends. Everyone here is so nice and open-minded, and so opinionated. It’s nice to be around that, around people who are so contemplative. It’s a learning experience for me, though. I’m not familiar with this kind of environment.”
“What do you mean?” she asked me, and I explained my situation at school. “I just feel like I’m not contributing enough, and when I do have something to say, I’m afraid that it’ll sound stupid.”
“Well, there’s this saying,” she replied, “‘If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.’ And if you are, you should invite smarter people or find a different room.”
I was grateful to be a part of an intellectually curious environment, but I wish that I hadn’t let fear hold me back back so much from contributing to that shared experience. When you’re confident in what you believe in, and unafraid to question, there’s no limit to what you might uncover for other people—I’m sure I had just as much to teach as they did! Don’t fool yourself into thinking your ideas are menial in comparison to someone else’s and suppress your own voice. I wish I had expressed my viewpoints and asked questions when I had the chance to, and that I didn’t let intimidation and insecurity hold me back from enjoying the full experience of thinking differently. There has to be a balance between speaking to help others absorb and listening to let yourself absorb, especially in an academic environment.
It was very true that I wasn’t the smartest person at camp. Even before the first day, I told myself that I should be prepared to not know everything. But I don’t think I realized how tragic it can be for someone like me, who is constantly characterized by her intelligence and leadership skills, to suddenly not be perceived as an intelligent leader around a different set of people. I also didn’t think about how good that could be for me. I was used to talking: being the first to raise her hand in class, telling people what to do during group projects, and letting someone know when they were wrong. I wasn’t used to listening.
It took some getting used to, but I wasn’t the designated nerd anymore—and that wasn’t totally a bad thing. I was able to explore my social skills better, and, in a sense, my flirtatious side surfaced as well. Mostly, it was just nice to able to see myself in a different light. My personality feels multifaceted. Since camp, I can understand all of the new parts of who I am, and how different environments can help me celebrate all of those different parts—and understand that that doesn’t make me an impostor. ♦