A brief anecdote on feelings of inadequacy

In my opinion, one of the toughest things about grad school is constantly feeling outclassed by everyone around you. Recently, I was reminded of why we shouldn’t feel that way when I thought of an experience I had a few years ago.

As a sophomore at Brigham Young University, I decided to start taking Arabic classes. I unfortunately stopped at the end of the year, but the two semesters of Arabic that I took were a whole new experience for me. I’d just spent two years in Francophone Europe, so I felt pretty good about language learning in general, but learning a new language, a new alphabet, and a new culture were an overwhelming experience that constantly made me feel inadequate in a learning setting in a way that I wouldn’t feel again until I got to MSU.

No particular memory illustrates this better than the very first day. Like many of the best language teachers, our instructor tossed us into the deep end from the get-go. We didn’t hear a word of English from her until at least 30 minutes into class, and for that first half hour, we were left to figure out what on earth she was asking us and how the heck we were supposed to answer. Fortunately for me, I was on the far end of the class, so I figured that I could listen to everyone before she got to me and that I’d be a little more confident by that point.

One student a few places to my left seemed to shatter that illusion, though. Not only did he already know what to say, but he even managed to have a little conversation with the instructor. One or two other students had known a word or two from visiting the BYU Jerusalem Center, but I don’t remember anyone being able to say as much as this guy. The tiny conversation that with الأستاذ couldn’t have lasted longer than ten seconds, but it was enough for me to convince myself that I didn’t stand a chance. This guy already knew what seemed like a lot on the first day of class, and I knew nothing. How was I ever going to pull this off?

I found out several weeks later that the reason that my classmate already knew so much on the first day is because he had previously failed the class twice and was now in Arabic 101 for the third time. The poor guy had the basic conversational stuff down, but usually hit some kind of snag mid-semester and just couldn’t get it together to earn a passing grade. The same thing happened this same semester: Most of us who felt intimidated by his seeming prowess on the first day ended up performing better in the class than he did.

This story isn’t about making grad school a zero-sum competition between cohort members: I’m not telling it so I can pat myself on the back or make fun of this guy for his Arabic troubles. Instead, it’s a story about appearances being deceiving. In grad school, everyone feels outclassed, even the people that you feel outclassed by. Chances are that you’re going to be just fine, so try not to listen to those feelings of intimidation when they come up.

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