Illustration by Linda Yu for Varsity

Almost all of my family lives in China. I have a lot of relatives I’ve never met, and no doubt more I’ve never even heard of. But if any of them have ever heard of me, they probably know one (and only one) thing about me: I went to the University of Cambridge. If the status of Oxbridge is inordinately high in the UK, the prestige attached to ‘elite Western universities’ in China extends to virtually mythic proportions. My parents and grandparents, as a result, do not hesitate to spread the word.

Two of the few extended family members I actually vaguely know are my maternal second cousins, who are in their thirties and live in Tianjin, a large coastal city in Northern China; the last time I saw them was in summer 2017, when my mum and I visited for a few days. The younger one, Xiǎoyàn, invited us to her flat to meet her 10-year-old daughter for the first time. My most vivid and enduring memory of the night, however, is when the conversation inevitably turned to Cambridge. You must have worked so hard, and be so clever, she said, to go to the University of Cambridge, to speak English so well. A very normal, down-to-earth woman, she looked to me as some kind of untouchable genius. My daughter will work hard and study well, but she will never be able to achieve that. I’ve never felt more like a fraud in my life.

I was right to feel like a fraud - not because I specifically do not deserve to be a Cambridge student, but because the elevated reputation of the ‘Cambridge student’ is itself fraudulent

Contrary to what we might assume, we talk about impostor syndrome almost constantly - perhaps, in my opinion, too much. The concept was first introduced in the 1978 article “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women,” described as “an internal experience of intellectual phoniness” despite “outstanding academic and professional accomplishments” and “ample objective evidence of superior intellectual functioning.”

Like many specific concepts that gain popular resonance, impostor syndrome has become both a lot more and a lot less than its initial definition. More recent research has estimated that around 70% of the population has experiences of ‘impostor phenomenon’ at some point in their lives, with a particular prevalence among women of colour in academia and other elite institutions. A Varsity article published in February this year stated that 89 of the 100 surveyed students reported experiencing symptoms of impostor syndrome: “feelings of self-doubt, of not having truly earned your place at university, of being the least able person in a room of geniuses.” Varsity additionally published at least three other articles about impostor syndrome last academic year.

I by no means wish to dismiss the feelings of anxiety and insecurity I’m sure many Cambridge students do experience, or to diminish their potential impact on wellbeing. For students who are non-white, women, and/or otherwise marginalised, as well as those who are working class, experiences of stereotype threat, social alienation, and other manifestations of structural exclusion are not trivial. They are commonly cited as factors contributing to impostor phenomenon and a general sense of not ‘belonging’. But perhaps there’s something to the wisdom of crowds. If the supposed impostor phenomenon is so pervasive, and if it can be examined clearly along the lines of oppression and marginalisation, then perhaps it isn’t particularly useful to discuss impostor syndrome as an individual problem - or even as a ‘problem’ at all.

I don’t think it’s controversial to suggest that Cambridge doesn’t necessarily deserve its staggering reputation, and it’s pretty well-established that admission and achievement have more to do with factors such as socioeconomic class, educational privilege, and a cultivated sense of entitlement than any objective measure of ‘intelligence’ or ‘intellect’. When my cousin told me her daughter would never be able to achieve what I had, it was the only true thing she said; I have absolutely no doubt that, had my parents not moved across the world to make me a British citizen, I would not be a Cambridge student. I also have no doubt that, had I grown up in China, I probably wouldn’t have done very well in the National College Entrance Examination - certainly not well enough to attend one of the top Chinese universities.


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Mountain View

You don’t actually have to do all of your work. You don’t, in fact, have to do much of it at all.

I was right to feel like a fraud - not because I specifically do not deserve to be a Cambridge student, but because the elevated reputation of the ‘Cambridge student’ is itself fraudulent. When the institution speaks constantly in the language of meritocracy, when we are told we deserve to be here as the ‘best and brightest’ in the world, it’s only natural to doubt your place when it becomes more and more glaringly obvious that merit and deservingness have little to do with it. We are all here by force of circumstance - many because class domination seeks to reproduce itself, and some because externalities present themselves in every system. And if you feel you don’t belong here in the hallowed halls of Cambridge, perhaps it’s because you’re onto something. The exceptional status of Cambridge (and elite Western universities in general) on the global stage is built on centuries of colonial exploitation and maintained through contemporary imperialist exploitation. In a just or truly ‘meritocratic’ world, no halls have the right to be so hallowed.

Impostor syndrome, in this case, is less an issue of individual pathology than a symptom of living (for a time, and in a sense) on the sunny side of inequality. It’s a subconscious recognition of the unjust nature of resource distribution, the fraudulence of Western claims to intellectual exceptionalism, and the arbitrary nature of a position of privilege not deserved through merit but built on historical and enduring lies. And it’s an insight that perhaps comes more easily to working class and other marginalised students - those who have not been raised on the assumption that they should lead the world. So if you feel like an impostor in a room full of geniuses, remember: you are not a special genius, and neither is anyone else. You shouldn’t feel entitled to be here, and neither should anyone else. ‘Here’ - as a site and a product of exclusion and exploitation - should not exist. Let’s get to work on that.

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