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Girl in a hat standing by a fence

What I Wish I Had Known as a First-Year Student

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Girl in a hat standing by a fence


I grew up in Oakland, CA, where I was a good student, but never planned on applying for Stanford. Why? Because the application fee was $60. "No point in wasting money when I'm not even going to get in," I told my father. The funny thing was at that time, I had already won an Emmy Award and had my short film screen in 40+ film festivals around the world. I couldn't internalize my success. I felt I was a fluke. "It's only a youth Emmy award." "The competition was weak."

Whenever I achieve anything, I'm genuinely surprised. Truly shocked! Last year, the STS program surprised me with an award for the first ever STS Alum of the Year. I was confused because I didn't apply for this award. "Do they realize there are so many famous STS alumni? Why me?"

This is called the Imposter Syndrome, "a concept describing high-achieving individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a "fraud," and strangely more common amongst women. I teach UX design at a school called General Assembly, where countless young women have come to me for career advice. I constantly get questions like, "I just got a job offer I'm not qualified for. How do I turn it down, respectfully?" "There's a guy at work who's a lot better than me. What can I do to improve myself?" In turn, I give them advice they weren't expecting. I tell them, "Stop looking to your left and right, and stay in your lane."

When I was a freshman, I felt so incredibly unqualified for Stanford. I was from Oakland, went to a low-performing public high school, and never even heard of "critical thinking." I struggled in the most fundamental of classes - IHUM, PWR, Math 41. I couldn't get into the dance group I yearned for. I spent the majority of my Stanford years constantly comparing myself to others, and wishing I was someone that I wasn't.

The reality is that as students, you're not supposed to have already "made it." You're there to learn. To stretch your perspective. To venture into spaces that you don't currently occupy. But it's really hard to do this when you think you're supposed to copy the person next to you, and somehow be better. No, Stanford is not an even playing field. Of course, some people come with major advantages. But as students, we are all seeds. Some may seem to grow faster than others, but comparing yourself to others is a fruitless, toxic activity.

Be comfortable with who you are, and who you sincerely want to be. Don't give into what all of your friends are doing even if it makes six figures right out of college and sounds impressive on paper.

My dance teacher kept a sign on our studio wall that said "The world doesn't need more lawyers or doctors. The world needs more good people." I like to think that the career you pursue is just a different outfit, but who you are is what matters. Don't worry about being the best at some prescribed path everyone seems to be following. Believe in the special gifts you have to offer. Nobody can be an imposter when they are simply being themselves.

Karen Lum

Science, Technology, and Society
Class of 2011

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