Khadeemo Castello, ’19, works at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), one of the “Big Four” accounting firms as well as the firm where he had his first internship. In an anecdote he gave Friday evening, Castello implicitly begged a question that would prove central to the rest of the night’s conversation: “Do I belong here?”
“It was the first day of my internship, my first internship ever, and I was pretty excited,” Castello said. “So it’s the first day, we’re all there at the roundtable, introducing ourselves. Then we did icebreakers, and one of the icebreaker questions was just, ‘What did you do over the summer?’ Just listening to everybody’s stories about what they did over the summer was completely crazy — people went traveling cross-country, cruises for the whole summer, flying across different places, jet-skiing, cabins in the woods, beach houses … I worked at Foot Locker during the summer. So it was pretty overwhelming for me. It just made me feel that first day, like, ‘I don’t want to start any conversations with these guys. I don’t want to tell them about my summer.’ I’m from the ‘hood, I’m not trying to talk about any of that.”
Castello was one of four panelists at a Friday evening Zoom discussion on “Imposter Syndrome in the Workplace,” co-hosted by the BU chapter of the National Association of Black Accountants (NABA) and the African Student Organization (ASO). Among the other panelists were Abigail Naval, ’20, Cori Van Dunk, ‘20, and current master’s student studying accounting, and assurance manager Ta-Von Wilson, who isn’t a Binghamton alumnus but has been heavily involved with NABA. All the alumni are now employed by one of the “Big Four” accounting firms: Deloitte, Ernst & Young, KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers.
A couple of brief introductions acquainted participants with the Zoom’s co-hosts, Esme Adusei, the treasurer of ASO and a senior majoring in biology and Kayla Altman, the director of programming of NABA and a junior majoring in accounting. Participants then shuffled into two-person breakout rooms for a few rounds of icebreakers and mock job interviews.
The term “imposter syndrome” was first coined back in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, who sought to explain high-achieving women’s tendency to attribute their success to good fortune, rather than diligence or ability. Imposter syndrome is now seen as a psychological phenomenon in which an individual experiences fear, anxiety or self-doubt in the face of new achievements. These intrusive thoughts, often referred to as “cognitive distortions,” stem from feelings of undeservedness or fraud. By some estimates, nearly 70 percent of individuals will experience symptoms of the imposter phenomenon at least once in their lifetime.
When Castello recounted his first day at PwC as an intern, he said that imposter syndrome can also be triggered by socioeconomic disparities or a lack of racial diversity, as it was for his case. Van Dunk seconded this with her experiences.
“I didn’t do either of my internships through any ‘diversity program,’” van Dunk said. “It just felt uncomfortable to be the only [person of color] in the room. That was something that made me think, ‘Do I belong here?’”
Altman added to this discussion with her experiences as a first-generation college student and a person of color.
“I am a first-generation college student, [and] I am Black, so growing up in more of a white-dominated neighborhood, I did feel, sometimes, like an imposter,” Altman said. “And it’s definitely something that carried over into college as well.”
With this, she introduced another point of concurrency among participants: imposter syndrome as a result of educational differences. Naval built off of this by speaking about the internship she took after her transition from community college to BU.
“It was a bit overwhelming because when I was there, I was meeting other students who went to Ivy League schools,” Naval said. “They had these agendas and clients and I was like, ‘Am I even supposed to be here? Am I capable of being here right now?’”
As far as combating these negative thoughts, a couple of motifs seemed to emerge among the speakers’ strategies. The first of these was the community. According to van Dunk, it’s important to get to know your colleagues. You may find out they’re experiencing similar feelings.
“I’m in this room and I’m thinking that people aren’t experiencing the same thing as I am,” van Dunk said. “But if you really sit there and talk with people, everyone’s just as scared. It brings comfort to know other people are going through what you’re going through.”
The second was internalizing positive affirmations. Wilson said this is a technique he uses when helping others deal with imposter syndrome.
“You’re really comparing yourself against something else,” Wilson said. “Like, you’re comparing X against Y. So when I help people going through imposter syndrome, I remind myself the same thing. There is no better or worse, no greater or less than, no ‘Hey, you went to Harvard, so you’re better than a person who went to [the University at Albany] ’… it’s really just, what do you bring to the table? And, are you comparing yourself with yourself?”