Finding My Niche in a Room Full of Professionals

Scholar post: By Nessa Graves, McNair Scholar ’14

We’ve talked about imposter syndrome, about not fitting in and recognizing your right to be here. Certainly I’ve struggled with this while at CMU, but I’m already imagining it becoming more intense once I get to graduate school. This past week I had the opportunity to present at the AAPA annual conference (American Association of Physical Anthropologists), and upon entering, I immediately began to feel the effects of the imposter syndrome. I see the big names that I cited in my research, I see advanced undergraduates, and graduate students working with these well known researchers and of course I feel out of place. Yet I feel, in some way, at home with my fellow anthropologists because we essentially all love anthropology. It is not a secret that I have been struggling with being happy (changing and growing) and being passionate about continuing my education in anthropology. I signed up to attend the meeting and present to get excited again and renew some of that passion. And I’m happy to share that I found it.

The conference began pretty routine—sign in, go through formalities, and present my work. EXCEPT I had the amazing opportunity to meet Dr. G. Richard Scott, one of the people whose work I cited for my sources. I felt intimidated meeting him, but he was so nice to me, that in that moment I also felt so accomplished. When it was over I reflected on our exchange. I had to catch my breath (I just met a celebrity pretty much) and in those few moments, Dr. Scott made my day. I felt important.

I later had an opportunity to speak with a CMU graduate presenting his master’s thesis. We had a similar project, so in a way it was an assurance that my work was relevant and exciting on a smaller scale. He gave me his card, and after my excitement passed I realized that I was still looking for something more, that extra “ah-ha” moment.

While I definitely was enjoying the conference, I still hadn’t experienced that spark. I figured I would attend the forensic anthropology session to look for the feeling (I’m into that stuff so why not right?). It was by pure luck that I looked to my right and saw the Race Panel in Light of the Ferguson Events. The funny thing is, I marked this meeting off on my program as something that I wanted to attend but I forgot about. If I was religious I would have thought that it was by God’s grace that I stumbled upon the meeting (insert my laugh here).

As I sat in the meeting listening to others speak I felt compelled to get up and speak. I felt brave and “in my place enough” to give my opinion/testimony. But as we all know I’m super shy and self-conscious, yet I still felt the need to speak. So when I saw Dr. Willermet get up to ask a question I knew I had to speak, and I did! I stood in front a room of more than 60 people and spoke on what I knew. I thought I was a babbling idiot but they seemed to think that I did an awesome job and clapped avidly. Ha! I even received a note from Dr. Susan Anton, a well-known professor from NYU (insert little girl screaming over boy band) stating that I rocked and that I should apply to her graduate program!

I stood in front a room of more than 60 people and spoke on what I knew.

People — strangers — came up to me to get my opinion on how to teach racial issues and I had the privilege to engage in a lot of deep conversations with professors. They thought I was a voice that is not heard often as a minority undergraduate and that I had something valuable to offer. At that moment I felt so warm inside, that kind of warm when your loved one, or your cat, and you feel a tingle in your stomach. That warm and tingly sensation filled me and I felt excited, passionate, and in my rightful place. I found my niche right there, discussing race. Among a sea of “big names” in anthropology, my mentor, and other colleagues in that room, I found my niche.

Nessa Spring 2015

Nessa presenting at the AAPA conference in Missouri.

For the past year I forgot how much talking about race and social injustices in our society still dominates our culture and our thinking. I had become robotic in explaining what I wanted to do: “I want to do forensic anthropology, so I can be like the TV show Bones. I want to study teeth; I love sexual dimorphism, etc.” I offered the same explanation for so long because that was all I focused on, I forgot the rest of my passion.

I think we can sometimes “forget,” as we get more involved in our field and research, why we started in the first place, why we want to earn our Ph.D.’s, and especially what we bring to our field. The truth is: we all bring something unique. It’s different for each person; for me it’s being a minority undergraduate from a university that approaches the field of anthropology from a holistic perspective. We have to learn how to tap into our uniqueness at all times, because the struggle is real.

I encourage you to focus on what it is about you that makes you unique and then take that and be brave and show the world. I did and now I have a professor who I would love to study with from NYU noticing me! Lynn has stated this and I think I’m finally getting it. A lot of people love anthropology [or insert your field here] and are smart (otherwise they would not be applying to graduate school), but what you communicate in your personal statement is what is unique about you and your person. That is what grabs their attention. I think I have a new personal statement to write!