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Columns

Harvard’s Authenticity Problem

Why students and the College share equal blame in perpetuating imposter syndrome.

By Ajay V. Singh, Contributing Opinion Writer
Ajay V. Singh ’21 is a Social Studies concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

My first visit to Counseling and Mental Health Services, I sat across from my clinician on a lime sofa. I folded my legs and mustered up the courage to look my clinician in the eye, my chin perched on my upright arm. “I feel like I’m… behind. I feel like I’m doing so much here, and it’s never enough. And I’m tired. It always feels like everyone’s so ahead and figured out. I feel so unsatisfied, so aimless.” I sank into the sofa a little, folding my arms into my lap.

Ever since coming to Harvard, I’ve struggled with being my authentic self on a daily basis. During my time with CAMHS, I grappled a lot with the relationship between Harvard’s culture of exhaustion and the ever-present imposter syndrome, a localized manifestation of a problem existent at most elite educational institutions — that students might perform peace or even happiness in everyday life, but often experience a constant internal, silent struggle.

While not reflective of every experience students might have with CAMHS, my therapist was wonderful. But I noticed that the language my therapist employed to describe this self-curating instinct of Harvard students was often individualistic, not collective — the language suggested Harvard students might choose to project confidence was ultimately always a choice, one that might have been influenced by an overarching cultural norm but nonetheless individual. My therapist would say, You’re doing this to yourself — it’s a student culture that you don’t have to buy into.

The focus on student responsibility for this community problem is one I’ve found as common across the university. I’ve thought a lot about to what extent this discourse of individual, student-centric responsibility for this problem is an accurate one, and I’m inclined to say that there actually is some truth to our responsibility in perpetuating a culture of exhaustion and in stigmatizing struggle. We implicitly measure each others’ sleep schedules, or GPA, or the number of positions that we hold in student organizations, and collectively and constantly calculate about peoples’ social value based on those criteria and more. It’s a norm that ultimately has created exclusive comp processes and an implicitly toxic academic environment.

However, there’s another culprit here that often goes ignored: an institutional culture that actively encourages and promotes the accumulation of accolades and achievements and neglects mental and physical health.

This mentality begins before we come to college, driven by the college admissions process. Yes, some students got to Harvard by focusing on their passions, and perhaps by authentically being themselves. But when the Common Application has ten spaces for extracurriculars, it’s no longer a game of authenticity; rather, it’s a numbers game. And if a student manages to keep up with those many different activities in ways that might look good when applying to a place like Harvard, it’s inevitable that the student loses sleep, or neglects their mental health.

When we arrive as students at Harvard, we construct these false personas and suffer in silence not because we enjoy it, but because at Harvard, it works. Not that students shouldn’t be rewarded for hard work, or that competitive things shouldn’t exist; there’s just no strong effort on the part of the College to encourage academic exploration or social transformation, in a way that balks the expectations of achievement championed by fellowships, or job applications, or really any other form of conventional success. Ironically, Harvard’s most recent attempt to encourage academic exploration, the Transcript Project, is itself a competition.

When students feel encouraged to pursue such unhealthy understandings of success, we become more robotic than human. Instead of being intentional with our time at Harvard, we strive to mechanically fill check-boxes for whatever we perceive our next steps in life are; and when we don’t know the next steps, we pursue the default option available. It should come as no surprise, then, that the two most popular concentrations at Harvard in the past five years are Economics and Computer Science; or that a whopping 50 percent of Class of 2018 respondents to a Crimson survey reported that they would be entering jobs in consulting, finance, or tech immediately following their graduation. While the “recruiting” for these jobs can be exhausting, they fit the same sort of criteria that most focused and dispassionate Harvard students might seek: a straightforward application process, and the promise of a prestigious and comfortable position in society.

There are a few simple answers to this immense cultural problem. Students and the College need to work together to eliminate competitive comps where we can, and make all non-academic spaces inclusive. Faculty must learn how to be more encouraging of students of all proficiency levels in the classroom, and need to acknowledge that mental health is not only important, but a priority. Small things like mental health statements on syllabi and notes at the beginning of class go a long way.

Ultimately, students need to understand that it’s okay to not be okay. Harvard University Health Services should continue to make CAMHS more accessible to students of all backgrounds and all identities. We also need to learn that pursuing a passion need not be mutually exclusive with success. Only through academic and non-academic risks, through exploration and discomfort and failure, can we find a pure passion, a happiness that surpasses the cheap thrills of conventional achievement, and shed our mechanical instincts for a pursuit that is more real, more satisfying, more human.

Ajay V. Singh ’21 is a Social Studies concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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