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A Former Working-Class Immigrant Kid Gets Honest About ‘Impostor Syndrome’

Marina Peña wears a gold graduation gown and cap, with a red, wide and blue ribbon around her neck holding a medal.
Marina Peña after receiving her diploma at her high school graduation in 2014.
(Courtesy of Marina Peña)
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Have you ever felt like you’re not deserving of your own accomplishments? Like someone’s going to discover you’re a fraud, and at any moment Ashton Kutcher is going to show up to let you know you’ve been “Punk’d?”

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Well, if you have, I can definitely relate. For me, those feelings didn’t start when I got older and started working. Nope. Impostor syndrome first crept into my life when I was 13, about eight years after my family moved to the United States from Argentina.

That year, as I was entering eighth grade, I received a full-tuition merit scholarship to attend a fancy private school in downtown L.A. Tuition alone was about $25,000 a year. And at the time, there was no way my parents could afford it.

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We were your typical working-class Latino family living in a two-bedroom apartment in Koreatown. Food, rent, and the bills came first, and there wasn’t much left over in the monthly budget for anything else.

So my family was counting on me to keep performing well, and getting those tuition funds renewed.

And all I wanted was to make them proud.

Class Differences

At first, I was just grateful to be at a school where the possibilities seemed limitless, where I was provided with so many tools and opportunities to succeed. Visiting authors and filmmakers would stop by our campus on a weekly basis. The art department had an entire building all to itself. Chinese and Japanese were taught as foreign languages, and the basketball court looked like something taken straight out of a “High School Musical” movie.

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Anything I wanted to try and learn about, I could. And boy, was I happy about that.

Marina Peña has her hair pulled back and wears a school uniform with a blue tie that has diagonal white and red stripes/
Marina in her eighth grade yearbook photo.
(Courtesy of Marina Peña)

But it didn’t take long for the excitement of my new reality to fade, and for worry to kick in.
I felt like I didn’t belong at my new school. Class-wise, I was one of only a few kids from a less privileged background, not to mention one of the only Latinas.

My parents were not famous actors or screenwriters, like those of some of my wealthy schoolmates. I didn’t have a nanny picking me up in a BMW after school. And my family definitely wasn’t going on extended vacations to Europe during the summer.

So in the midst of all this, I quickly started to doubt myself. I felt like an outsider. I wondered whether I was even smart enough to be there, whether I could handle the academic rigor. Whether receiving the scholarship had all just been a fluke. I mean after all, in my mind, I was just an immigrant kid from Argentina who read one too many Harry Potter books.

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No matter what I did, I couldn’t shake those feelings of not being worthy enough to be in my own school. I assumed that the day would just come when a teacher or the principal would tell me, “Marina, I’m sorry, but we made a mistake. We’re going to have to rescind your scholarship.”

I waited a long time for that day, and fortunately for me, it never came. Instead, I graduated as the valedictorian of my high school class, and I kept moving forward.

Marina Peña, in a cap and gown, stands next to a female teacher and holds up her diploma.
Marina at her high school graduation ceremony in 2014 with one of her favorite English teachers, Mrs. Carver.
(Courtesy of Marina Peña)

But as I did that, there were more feelings of what I would eventually learn was called impostor syndrome, which is defined as “the feeling that your achievements are not real or that you do not deserve praise or success,” and is prevalent among students and professionals of color.

Finding Community In College

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I learned about it in college, where I continued to doubt my own abilities. I double majored in journalism and political economics at the University of Southern California, and through it all I was constantly questioning whether my ideas held any water, whether my writing was good enough, whether I was good enough.

What helped me through college was finding a community of people who could relate to all the feelings that my now 18-year-old self knew all too well. I made friends with some of the most incredible women in my school, had them as roommates and shared special moments with them dreaming up our future careers.

Marina Peña, left, with college roommates Allison Do and Iman Khan photographed at a table in a food court.
Marina, left, with college roommates Allison Do and Iman Khan.
(Courtesy of Marina Peña)

They were all the children of immigrants, or immigrants themselves, a little nerdy and like me, they had worked hard just to get to USC.

For the most part, we were confident that we’d find a way to make things happen for ourselves. We would cheer each other on and congratulate one another on our accomplishments. Yet for all of us, that self-assuredness coexisted with a lot of self-doubt, and a firm belief that we had just gotten lucky so far in life.

From what I’ve learned since, it’s not surprising to me that we felt this way as young women from immigrant backgrounds at USC, sharing impostor syndrome as a common link. Some reports estimate that about 70% of people experience these feelings at some point in their lives — and women and people of color, underrepresented in white academic and professional spaces, are uniquely affected.

‘They’re Going To Find Out I Don’t Really Belong Here'

Once I graduated and started working, I accepted that this impostor syndrome would continue to be a part of my life. There wasn’t an easy fix to it. I couldn’t just magically feel like I belonged in every space I walked into. Getting older wasn’t helping either.

I moved to Manhattan, New York City — a long way from Koreatown, in so many ways — and started working as a news producer for Yahoo! Finance on two morning finance shows. I was covering Wall Street, and the pressure was on.

Inside the New York Stock Exchange. Men in suits and red trader vests stand around an array if monitors.
A photo taken by Marina the first time she volunteered to work at the New York Stock Exchange while at Yahoo! Finance.
(Courtesy of Marina Peña)

I had to show up at 5:30 a.m. and immediately start working: booking guests, preparing my hosts for interviews, writing breaking news and pitching my ideas to other reporters and producers. Most days, I was at the office past 6:00 p.m. working on the next round of shows.

With time, I adapted to the daily grind. Getting the work done.

But presenting my ideas to my colleagues remained difficult for me. I could hear my voice trembling sometimes. I was self-conscious about my slight accent, which is a little bit Argentinian and a little bit L.A.

A costumed green Grinch has an arm around Marina Peña's right shoulder in the Yahoo! Finance newsroom.
The time Marina booked The Grinch for a Yahoo! Finance morning show.
(Courtesy of Marina Peña)

All I could often think of was, “Why should my ideas matter to them? I don’t have enough experience. This isn’t good enough to go on air. They’re going to find out I don’t really belong here.”

Some of my colleagues recognized my struggle and encouraged me, reminding me that my ideas mattered. That I mattered.

Others were not so nice.

When I showed interest in working at the New York Stock Exchange, one supervisor in particular told me that I didn’t have “what it takes” and that I “wouldn’t cut it.” She was an Emmy award-winning producer coming from Good Morning America, one of the highest rated morning TV shows in the country.

For the longest time, those words killed me. I internalized them and took them to heart as the truth. I became even more quiet during meetings, and had her words in my mind on playback.

Pushing Forward

But even though she doubted me, and I doubted my place in this industry, I knew that I wasn’t going to let one person’s opinion or nagging impostor syndrome define me. I was going to push forward.

I talked to other people about how defeated I was feeling, especially to other women of color. I decided to come up with a routine to hype myself up before every meeting. I told myself, “You’re awesome, you’ve got all this talent, use it. You got this!” I volunteered for things at work, even if I felt unqualified.

Instead of engaging with my negative thoughts, I decided to actively work against them. I decided to reframe things and understand that everyone doubts themselves at some point. It’s normal. Maybe more normal for some of us, but that’s just how it is.

Marina Peña's work badge reads: SCPR, Marina Pena, News. Intern Take 2 with her photo in the center.
Marina's work badge on her first day at Southern California Public Radio in February 2020.
( Courtesy of Marina Peña)

I also recognized that I was accomplished in my own right, and should take the time to acknowledge it more often. So what if I was from a working-class immigrant family in Koreatown? My background and hard work had all helped me get a great education, a job in New York after college, and a community of people who supported me.

What’s important, I realized, was to accept that yes, I might sometimes feel like an impostor, but I am not leading an impostor life.

That said, even though I do have a greater understanding of what I struggle with, it's still a work in progress and will likely continue to be, but what can I say — that’s life.

After many conversations with my friends and colleagues, I know I’m not the only Latina or person of color who struggles with impostor syndrome. And in some ways, it’s comforting to know I’m not alone in this because we can all support each other. But it also means there’s still a lot of work to be done.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
  • Marina Peña is an Argentine American journalist who is currently a producer for Wild, a new podcast from LAist Studios. Her work has been featured on Yahoo! Finance, NBC L.A., HuffPost, L.A. Taco and LAist, among other places. She loves strawberries and a good empanada.