Student View: One physicist’s reflections on her experience with imposter syndrome
In this Student View column, Kavya Devgun ’21 shares the uncertainty she felt as a woman of color pursuing a STEM career — and how the St. Olaf Society of Women in Physics served as a source of support and mentorship that helped launch her toward a graduate program in aerospace engineering.
BY KAVYA DEVGUN ’21
Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle states that we can know either the position or momentum of a quantum particle at any given moment. It’s kind of like a quantum see-saw. As soon as we measure one, the other becomes uncertain. At St. Olaf College, students learn about this principle during their sophomore year, and it is one of the guiding laws of quantum physics.
As you can imagine, scientists are seldom satisfied with this. We want to know everything, with precision, all at once. Still, Heisenberg tells us that sometimes this is not possible — sometimes we have to learn to live with the uncertainty. For women of color in STEM like myself, living with uncertainty like this can be all too familiar.
To describe this experience, we borrow from our peers in psychology and use the term “imposter syndrome.” Wherever self-doubt or feelings of insecurity creep in, a whole new type of uncertainty washes over me. Questions like, “Do I belong here?” “Am I good enough?” and “Have I just been lucky this whole time?” circle through my head inside the classroom and out, and I know that many of my peers are fighting the same internal battles.
To someone unfamiliar with this sensation, it may even sound silly. However, women, people of color, and members of many marginalized groups struggle with this crisis of academic identity in much greater numbers than their peers. According to a study carried out by Dr. Laura McCullough at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, 65 percent of survey respondents reported feeling that their experience with imposter syndrome stood in their way of feeling successful.
To combat this in the St. Olaf community, a group of women in the physics major banded together in 2018 to form an organization known as the St. Olaf Society of Women in Physics. This group has formed and maintained a community of support for women and gender minorities and serves as a safe space for advice, mentorship, tutoring, and discussion.
I joined the executive board my senior year alongside my peers Tori Swensen ’21 and Jessye Gassel ’21. Given the rise in remote learning this past year, we have dedicated special focus to helping younger students feel empowered and accepted within the department. We have also organized educational events for all physics students highlighting minority physicists who contributed to historical developments in the field and social events for gender minorities in order to foster a sense of community.
This organization was a lifeline for me when I felt overwhelmed by my own imposter syndrome, so I am thrilled to continue the tradition for future classes. We have received vocal encouragement from faculty in the department who have shown their support not only in the classroom but in hallways, office hours, emails, and department meetings.
The outpouring of support we have received has helped alleviate some of the anxieties and burdens that come with being a minority in a historically homogeneous field. The robust mentorship and support system that I have benefitted from in my STEM field at St. Olaf, paired with the strong research skills that I have gained through unique St. Olaf experiences such as the Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) program, has given me hope that I can forge my own path in the field and help pave the way for generations of women to come. I am excited for the adventures to come as I prepare to start my Masters of Science in Aerospace Engineering this fall at the University of Michigan. I will carry with me all of the support and lessons I have learned during my time at St. Olaf.