Battling Imposter Syndrome with PhD Candidate Sara Awartani

We sat down with fellow cohort Sara Awartani, a first-year PhD candidate in American Studies at George Washington University. Although we know her to be pretty awesome, we wanted to have a chat with her about a topic we’ve been mulling over, “Impostor Syndrome.” As grad students, particularly through the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality, tend to inhabit their institutional spaces with a fear of inadequacy despite there being validation in our very existence within these spaces. We sat down with Sara to see how she, as a PhD student transitioning from her Bachelors (and fellow brown girl), was battling the fear of being discovered as a fraud. I think it’s fair to say, not only do we need to remind ourselves but continue to remind each other that there is validation in our existence and that our intellect is needed now more than ever. See what Sara has to say:

PhD Sara Awartani
PhD candidate Sara Awartani in the archives of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies

Hometown: Born and raised Florida Gator from Gainesville, Florida
Neighborhood: Dupont Circle
Degree: Phi Beta Kappa and Summa Cum Laude from the University of Florida with a Bachelors of Arts in History, and a minor in Latin American Studies, Sustainability Studies, and Religion. Currently working on a PhD in American Studies.
Focus: Transnational and comparative history, cultural politics, political culture
Interest: Puerto Rico and mainland diaspora community to chart a comparative and intersectional history of Puerto Rico and Palestine

I am currently examining the ways in which Puerto Rican independence activists in the United States have identified with and argued on behalf of Palestinian self-determination at a variety of historical moments throughout a forty year period. By doing so, I ask in what ways a critical analysis of solidarity discourses might assist in dismantling the aura of exceptionality that often characterizes
the “Palestine problem” and Puerto Rico’s “status question.”

What has the transition been like from BA to PhD? What has been the greatest challenge?

Professors always tell you to take time off before going to graduate school, and transitioning immediately from my BA into a PhD program taught me that they were absolutely, positively correct in their advice. I chose to ignore it, and ultimately I think that my decision was for the best. But I would be a liar if I said entering a PhD program straight off isn’t challenging. In fact, multiple factors made the transition difficult. Not only did I move away from my family, but I am also significantly younger than the rest of the PhD students in my department, which makes me feel generally out of place. All of this is compounded by the fact that I switched from history into an interdisciplinary program. While my research may have always been interdisciplinary in focus, the transition to an academic world more predominately concerned with theory was immensely dizzying. It took a while to feel situated in the department and its “lingo.”

You were admitted as a PhD student, so that should be enough to validate your sense of belonging in the program, right? Have you found that to be true?

Yes and no. I consistently struggle with “feeling like a fraud.” My peers seem lightyears ahead of me in critical reading, in knowledge about relevant literatures, and in networking as a graduate student. Thankfully, I am surrounded by wonderfully patient professors both inside and outside my immediate departmental home, all of whom remind me that graduate school is a marathon, not a sprint. They reassure me that none of my questions are “stupid” and that almost nobody enters graduate school “knowing it all.” Rather, the purpose is to be humble, admit your weaknesses, and be willing to ask for help.

The term Impostor Syndrome has been coined for those who feel inferior despite qualifications. What has been your greatest barrier, feeling inadequate in knowledge and/or efficiency, productivity, or gender? Explain. 

I think most of my struggles can be traced back to feeling inadequate in what I know. While many of my peers hold BAs or MAs from elite institutions, I come from an extremely large state school. That’s not to say that my undergraduate education was by any means subpar; I was continuously challenged at the University of Florida, as well as surrounded by fantastic mentors – both students, faculty, and professors, all of whom got me to my current position as a doctoral student. But my department – and I was in history – didn’t emphasize theoretical knowledge, so I often feel myself at a disadvantage in my coursework. I’m really still engaged in the process of learning how to read theory, whereas everyone else seems to have had ample experience with it. I’m also one of the first of my friends to attend graduate school, as well as the first in my family to attend graduate school (at least in the United States). So I don’t really have outside references on how graduate school works, or what should be done, or what’s normal to feel, etc. Thankfully as the year has gone on, I’ve realized that everyone is really in the same boat, no matter how put together they seem. When you get to that point where everyone breaks down their barriers and are completely real that they also didn’t finish the readings and likewise had zero clue what a particular scholar is trying to convey… That’s a beautiful feeling.

What has been the greatest opportunity living in DC so far?

Okay, can I have two greatest opportunities – one serious and one silly? First and foremost, I count my blessings every day to be part of a space that includes so many resources to empower my Palestinian identity. When I was at the University of Florida, so much of my coursework, research, and activism revolved around the notion of empowering historical identities, but I only felt comfortable claiming my Puerto Rican-ness. In DC, and especially in and around intellectual life (do doctoral students have any other life?), there are so many spaces in which I feel I can claim my Palestinian identity without fear or shame – from conversations with students in my cohort, to fantastic seminars with equally fantastic professors, and to various institutions. Within less than a year, I’ve attended lectures hosted by the Institute for Palestine Studies, the Jerusalem Fund and Palestine Center, and even a panel on cultural production in Occupied Palestine organized by GW’s Institute for Middle East Studies. I am infinitely thankful to be part of an environment where I no longer feel the need to deny half of myself in order to appease the world and their misconstrued, stereotype-laden understandings of Palestine, Muslims, Arabs, and the Middle East more broadly.

Second, DC has seasons! Yes, I am talking about the weather. North Central Florida actually gets cold – and no, I don’t live anywhere near the beach or Miami, as everyone thinks – but we basically get every season within one week. It can be 80 degrees one day, and 25 the next morning. Thanks to DC, I’ve finally witnessed the magic of fall when everything turns golden and beautiful. I’ve thoroughly loved every minute of snow: twirling around Dupont Circle at midnight as the snow falls and before the streets are plowed, making snow angels in the middle of sidewalks, and exploring the monuments covered in a beautiful blanket of white. And, of course, texting many, many snow selfies to my family. Spring has been equally as fabulous. The Cherry Blossoms were a fairytale but the tulips are what’s really making my heart sing! I think it’s just as important to love the city or town where you decide to attend graduate school, and not just the college/university’s reputation, name, or prestige.

How have you made an institutional home at GW? What advice would you give others (especially brown girls) in doing the same?

Be unapologetic about your identity. Ask for help whenever you need it. In fact, ask around for help. Sometimes I feel a little disheartened that there isn’t one person who can answer all my questions and calm all my worries. But really, it’s better to have an entire corner of people (professors, friends, family) that reassure you of your worth and your potential when you need someone to help pick up all your pieces that (seem to) keep coming undone.

What has been the greatest advice you’ve been given so far?

At one of my very lowest moments during my first semester, I texted a friend I hold near and dear to my heart about how I felt so disconnected to what my studies originally meant to me, which is to empower our – speaking to brown girls – otherwise marginalized identities. Basically I told her I didn’t think I could make it. That all of the theory and reading and putting up of charades that “everything is fine” was too much for me. She reminded me that I’m here for my communities and because I have important stories to tell, and she did this all by saying “Be kind to yourself while blooming.”

Honestly, that’s become my mantra since then. It’s easy and natural to get caught up in comparisons, and you will quickly deteriorate into feeling inadequate in every way possible. Any time I feel that way, I mentally – and, sometimes, out loud cause no shame – will tell myself “bloom.” And Spring has nicely reinforced this for me: Winter seems long and never-ending. You’re depressed, everything is grey and brown and you constantly wonder if it will ever end(!!?) Then all of a sudden, the air smells wetter, birds are chirping, and slowly but surely everything starts to bloom. The person next to you might already have participated in conferences, published articles, and met a million influential scholars. But none of that diminishes your potential and someday you, likewise, will bloom, humbly and unexpectedly.

Any last comments to offer?

‘Bloom where you are planted’ — the alternative version of my mantra. Never let the would have, could have, or should haves derail you from your right to bloom. Even when it seems lightyears away, you will bloom. I promise!

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