Managing Imposter Syndrome and Culture Shock

Managing Imposter Syndrome and Culture Shock

By Abeera Ahmed MPP 2024

Receiving your offer of admission may have come with a mixed bag of

emotions—unbridled joy, uncontrollable tears, tight hugs from your loved ones, and pats on your back from trusted mentors. But if you are anything like me or many of my peers at HKS, you might also be in the deep throes of anxiety and fear of how you will manage the big move to Cambridge, whether you’re coming from few streets down the road, crossing state lines, flying one country over, or taking a transatlantic flight here. 


You may feel like the proverbial small fish in a big pond—out of depth, not quite sure whether to flow with the tide or against it. It may feel like the admissions team made a mistake and let you in without thorough vetting, but trust me when I say this, the admissions folks know what they are doing. You did not receive your admission letter by mistake. Be assured of that.

Culture shock and imposter syndrome are real, especially at a

school as esteemed as Harvard. But fear not—we have

all been there. In many ways, I still experience these feelings. Some

days, it feels like a niggle at the back of my brain, and other days it feels

like a pit in my stomach. But potential fellow HKS peers, I am here to assure you that these feelings are nothing more than

growing pains.

Should you decide to come to Harvard Kennedy School, I want to help

set you up for success. Here

are some words of advice:

Be curious—this is an experience of a lifetime.

Take all the anxiety, shock, and discomfort and reframe it as

curiosity. Once you start graduate school, channel this discomfort as an

opportunity for transformation. See what your brain and your gut are telling

you to pay attention to. It may be people, it may be courses, it may be

study groups, it may be research. Fully lean in and immerse yourself into the

experience of being an HKS student.

Build a scaffolding to save your sanity.

Things at HKS get very rigorous, very quickly. In between

coursework, deadlines, and seemingly unending tasks, please remember to carve

out a path for yourself that seems most resonant to you. Your

journey is unique to you. While you do the hard work of making your path through this

experience, remember to find your guardrails in the form of community, mentors,

and friends. Doing things like bringing along recipes to make your favorite

childhood foods to comfort you can make the transition just a bit smoother too.

Self-care is community care.

My queer, BIPOC, first-gen college students, know that you don’t

have to go through it alone. Harvard University has abundant resources to

connect you to mental health professionals, therapists, peer support groups,

and community caucuses. We all recognize the immense toll of

graduate school. Whatever your social and personal identities might be, Harvard

has a community. Orient yourself towards community and

solidarity with those ready to catch your fall.