Cambridge and My Crusade Against Mediocrity

Kate McInnes is a third-year Political Science major at the University of Alberta. 

Imposter syndrome — the constant fear of being undeserving of one’s accomplishments. This is something I think most university students have experienced at some point in their degree. I would posit that this feeling is more prominent among political science students than other majors within the Faculty of Arts. When you have fifteen Type A personalities in a 400-level seminar with a 20% participation mark, it is bound to breed insecurity and competition (especially when you realize most of your classmates will probably be applying to the same law and grad programs you will be).

Since I began at the U of A in 2014, I’ve attributed my academic successes partially to hard work, but also to easy profs and good luck. When a professor in my second year recommended I apply for an international politics program at the University of Cambridge – I seriously doubted my ability to be accepted. The program admits 40 undergraduate students a year, and these students are expected to complete a thesis in just six weeks under the supervision of a PhD candidate.

I submitted my transcripts, letter of intent, and paper proposal in early December, and I was stunned when I received my letter of acceptance and a very generous bursary from my college, Gonville and Caius. I remember reading the syllabus incredulously, as it required 56 textbooks and over 100 articles to be read before the course commenced. I felt the same sick feeling I often felt in seminars and discussions in my courses at the U of A, when I listened to my classmates and realized my intellect paled in comparison.

On the first day of classes, the head of the department told us that we supposedly represented the best of our respective universities. His speech didn’t help me feel anything less than hopelessly inadequate compared to the two other students in my thesis cohort — from the London School of Economics and the University of Paris — who were well-spoken, well-read, well-traveled, and fluent in multiple languages. I began to panic that what had been “good enough” at the U of A would be insufficient at a place like Cambridge, and that I wouldn’t be able to convince the people here that I was smart.

It turns out that my fears were unfounded. The course load, while astonishingly demanding and strenuous, was doable. I polished off my 30-page thesis on sustainable opium eradication in Afghanistan and completed the course with a starred first (the equivalent of an A in Canada) and the feeling that my success could be attributed to nothing other than hard work.

It’s easy in competitive environments to feel as though everyone else is more worthy of being there than you are. During my time in Cambridge, I met a number of extraordinarily intelligent and ambitious people in my classes and my college, including a med student from New Zealand, a Kazak studying fashion in Milan, a Mennonite from Indiana, and a prince from Qatar. But what made these people inspiring rather than intimidating was the fact that, despite their accomplishments, they were down-to-earth, unafraid of failure, and never took themselves too seriously. 

Though my time in England made me realize how lucky I am to study at a school like the U of A, which gave me the skills to do well at this program, it’s hard to live in a place like Cambridge and not be constantly appreciative of it. Cambridge is a visual wonderland, with sprawling college courts, magnificent stone fortresses, swaying willow trees, and the river Cam running under shallow bridges. The university’s beauty is only strengthened by its human history: Chaucer, Milton, Cromwell, Byron, Wordsworth, Darwin, Malthus, Hawking (who, according to the porter of my college, has Corn Flakes every morning and dressed up to see Batman vs. Superman when it came out), and 90 Nobel Prize winners. But outnumbering those greats by the thousands are the ordinary students who made no mark in history, but whose feet wore away a dip in the stone steps, who passed under the same ancient archways, who surely felt incompetent by the cleverness of their peers, who churned out half-decent essays at 4 am, and who came with the same hopes and apprehensions and left with a sense of purpose and the pride of a job well done.

I’ve already forgotten the names of the diplomats, ambassadors, and government officials who taught me at Cambridge. What stays with me is the confidence I developed, the friends from around the world who I remain close with, and the under-lit cobbled passages I walked every night as I made my way home.

-Kate McInnes