When I was born, my dad was working as a cab driver in Washington DC while my mom was a cafeteria cook in Alexandria, Virginia. My parents struggled to make ends meet in order to provide me with a great childhood and they didn’t want that life for me. So every chance they got, they stressed how important a quality education was for me. They made sure that as soon as I got home from school that I did my homework. They made sure I was on the honor roll. They made sure that they were involved in my school life and it paid dividends. My grades were always at the top of my class and I breezed through most of my classes. Not only that, but my parents made sure that I was involved in extracurricular activities such as soccer, karate, choir, and church. I pretty much excelled at everything I did. Because of this, I became the pride of my community.
Seriously, I was that kid who other parents would brag about to their own children. Every A+ that I brought home was greeted with hugs and statements of pride. It was awesome, but also stressful. As years went by, this larger-than-life reputation that I seemed to have built kept adding more and more self-inflicted pressure on me. You see, life got a little harder in the very area of my life that I had been a king in. Classes started becoming difficult. My grades began slipping a little. I couldn’t simply ingest information as soon as I saw it anymore. I had to chew first. And even then, certain topics felt too big to swallow. All the while, I felt like I had to keep up appearances. Once I realized I wasn’t as invincible as my reputation seemed to advertise, I froze. I had connected great grades and academic success with love and acceptance by family and friends.
So what did I do? It would have been ideal if I had used my declining situation as a motivating tool to regain my kingly status. What actually happened is I developed a fear of failure and a reluctance to ask for help. Procrastination became one of my favorite techniques to avoid situations and tasks that held the possibility of failure (which ironically only made it easier for me to be mediocre at said tasks). My rationale was that if I didn’t try, then no one would think I couldn’t do it, they would just think I didn’t do it. The fear of asking a dumb question and revealing to my peers that I’m secretly incompetent kept me from asking for help. Even now, I find myself waiting for some inevitable moment where it’s reveled that I’m not PhD material and I somehow snuck into the program (see: imposter syndrome). My entire life was defined by raving academic success, so once I reached a point where I realized I wasn’t perfect, I felt…lost. At the same time, I felt I shouldn’t be tormented by this mindset. I shouldn’t think so little of myself, which made me more aggravated that I couldn’t break out of this mindset and made me think even less of myself. Vicious cycle.
All of this seemed to come to a climax in graduate school. Lots of students, all seemingly geniuses, progressing through their classes and research at a faster pace than I seemed to be. And as one of the only black students, I found myself feeling more pressure to represent for my race. I often ignore the fact that I was accepted into the same program as all of these “geniuses” and that I was coming in with nothing more than a remedial Biology knowledge base that caused me to have to do some serious catching up that a lot of these students didn’t have to do. But, a negative mindset as deeply rooted as this one doesn’t quit so easily.
I see myself making strides sometimes. Feeling confident and willing to take on the challenges ahead of me without any fear or cowardice in my mind. In fact, a friend of mine in my program admitted to having a lot of the same issues with her research that I was having, which made me feel less alone in my struggles and gave me a bit of confidence. But there’s still lots of work to be done and lots of growth that needs to take place before this midset is destroyed.