Confronting imposter anxiety: Graduate School hosts renowned author and speaker Dr. Ijeoma Nwaogu

Author: Julaine Zenkleberger

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Renowned speaker and leadership coach Ijeoma Nwaogu, Ph.D., addressed a mixed crowd of students, faculty, and staff at Washington Hall.

On February 1st in Washington Hall, the Graduate School — in conjunction with Graduate Student Life, the Association for Women in Science, and Graduate Student Government —  hosted the first of two events given by renowned speaker and coach, Ijeoma Nwaogu, Ph.D. Dr. Nwaogu uses her work to give practical and approachable advice to help people move beyond the pervasive problem of “imposter syndrome” and achieve their own personal, academic, and professional goals. 

Imposter syndrome is a commonly discussed issue in the higher education sphere. Indeed, at Notre Dame, new graduate students are warned during their orientation about the ways that imposter syndrome can stymie success. The phenomenon was first described by psychologists Susan Imes, Ph.D., and Pauline Rose Clance, Ph.D., as something that specifically occurs in high achieving individuals. Imposter syndrome occurs when individuals doubt their own abilities, attributing success to luck or a misperception of others. Individuals experiencing this phenomenon often have the overwhelming anxiety and expectation that someone will eventually unmask them as a fraud.

While imposter syndrome is a common occurrence, especially among academics within higher education, its name often makes it seem like it is a defect, which can lead to feelings of guilt or shame. Dr. Nwaogu, however, uses her work to put a more approachable name to imposter syndrome and give individuals tools to overcome it. In her work, Nwaogu renames this “syndrome” imposter anxiety. When asked why she uses anxiety instead of syndrome to discuss the phenomenon, Nwaogu explained that calling it a syndrome implies that there is an abnormality. But this reaction to life's challenging situations is normal anxiety and a common experience faced by most people that can be managed and overcome.

In her coaching work, Nwaogu often works with high-achieving individuals who feel stuck due to their imposter anxiety, which limits their potential throughout both their professional and personal lives. Noticing this pattern, Nwaogu refocused much of her research on this issue and created the A.C.T. (Awareness, Connection, and Take Action) Method for Overcoming Imposter Anxiety. The diversity in the audience attending Nwaogu’s afternoon seminar at Notre Dame — faculty, staff, and both undergraduate and graduate students — underscored her message that imposter anxiety is a common experience felt by many individuals across fields and levels of experience. 

Nwaogu Imposter Anxiety Workshop1
Later in the evening, Dr. Nwaogu led a workshop for graduate students to discuss strategies for working through imposter anxiety, commonly known as "imposter syndrome".

Later the same evening, Nwaogu hosted a workshop at the Graduate School's own Bond Hall, which was attended by graduate students representing every college on campus, as well as a variety of graduate programs and years of study. The workshop was an immersive experience, giving the students a unique opportunity to interact with the topics surrounding imposter anxiety. David Grogan, a third-year anthropology student, shared, “Dr. Nwaogu's workshop provided an opportunity for graduate students to better understand imposter anxiety, how it manifests, and how to mitigate its effects. It was a supportive environment in which to directly address this common and difficult issue.” 

Mayesha Sahir Mim, fourth-year bioengineering student and vice president of Graduate Student Government, added, “Like many of my peers, I too suffer from self-doubt and I second-guess my competence as a researcher on a daily basis… Dr. Nwaogu equipped [me] with multiple tangible and intangible tools to combat these thoughts as they arise.” One skill highlighted in the workshop was called “Archive Your Awesomeness” which Mayesha found particularly effective. This exercise has the participant write a list of all the accomplishments that they have achieved throughout their lives or career in order to give evidence against the imposter anxiety voices telling them that they don’t belong in their field or role.

Dr. Ijeoma Nwaogu earned her master’s degree in college student affairs administration and a doctoral degree in counseling from the University of Georgia. In addition to her work as a speaker and leadership coach, Nwaogu served as a director of the Multicultural Center at Rice University. Her book, Overcoming Imposter Anxiety: Move Beyond Fear of Failure and Self-Doubt to Embrace Your Worthy, Capable Self, will be released in October 2023.