A few months ago I passed the exam required to call myself a Ph.D. candidate. Let me say that again, I passed! I am a candidate. I can say this without feeling like an imposter now, but it wasn’t until I was on my way to earning my Ph.D. at Purdue and two years after I had graduated with my Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering that I finally felt like I was smart enough, that I deserved the opportunities I was encountering and that I would succeed.
Many people with backgrounds like mine struggle to find their way in fields like engineering; a recent Department of Education report shows that women have higher attrition rates from STEM majors, and that students from low-income backgrounds are more likely to leave college before graduating. In light of these disparities, I hope my story can provide confidence and lessons for young people who are carving their own unique path to graduation and a better life.
Lesson 1: Don’t go it alone
In high school I had a lot of shame around being low-income and having parents without college degrees. I was unfamiliar with the college process. I was afraid of loans. I was worried about not being accepted and that I wasn’t smart enough. I think the hardest barrier was not being able to ask my mom for help or go to her when I had important college questions. I might never have made it without support along the way. I found a college coach through College Possible and she showed me the way forward and believed in my potential.
But I struggled in college, too. As the only woman of color in the engineering program and one of the few students coming from a low-income background, I had a hard time finding a place where I felt supported and accepted. I turned to my coach and found support through the Multicultural Student Services on campus. I learned the term “imposter syndrome” which helped me name and understand what I was experiencing. The hardest part was reaching out to existing resources and taking that first step toward becoming my own advocate. These support networks made a world of difference, and I’m excited to see the kinds of networks we build to support one another.
Lesson 2: Once you’ve got it, own it!
No one can take away my education and the knowledge I’ve gained. Every degree has been a boost of self-confidence. It gives me something to hold on to that is mine, that is earned, and that is irreplaceable. I have created a safety net for my future and I am finally at a point in my education where I know I am intelligent and strong, that academia benefits from my contributions. It took me a long time to get here though, don’t get me wrong! I went through years and years of self-doubt despite continuing to rack up accomplishments and accolades. Maybe you also experience these feelings of inadequacy, and that’s okay, but treat it like a bad habit that you are trying to break. We can break the cycle by building our networks and acknowledging and honoring our accomplishments.
Lesson 3: If the path doesn’t exist, create it
There weren’t many role models for me growing up who looked like I do and who were interested in science or engineering, so it was hard finding confidence as a student and believing that this was a place I belonged. Now however, I believe that my presence as a woman of color in engineering getting her Ph.D. sets a standard and an example for other young people interested in pursuing their own unique path, but lack confidence in their ability to succeed. I learned that just because there weren’t many people who looked like me in my field, it didn’t mean that that field wasn’t for me, and that I had the power to change it. If you are reading this and are struggling to decide on entering or staying in a degree or career, don’t quit because you doubt your abilities or worthiness. Go for it. It will be hard and–I won’t lie–sometimes very isolating, but it is worth it and so are you.
eduInnovation and Getting Smart have partnered with The J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation to produce a thought leadership campaign called Generation Do-It-Yourself (GenDIY) – how young people are hacking a pathway to a career they love – on The Huffington Post and GettingSmart.com. This campaign about reimagining secondary and postsecondary education and career skills will explore the new generation building a global economy and experiences that are impact driven and entrepreneurial. For more on GenDIY: