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Becoming Professor Navarro: on imposter syndrome

Updated: Jul 26, 2019

I’m going to tell you about a time I stole something. And NO, this isn’t about last week when I pushed my cart through the Target parking lot, unloaded fifty bags into my car, buckled two children into their rear-facing car seats, and then noticed the two gallons of milk sitting on the bottom rack of the cart that I’d never paid for. (If you think I’m a good enough person to unload the kids, go back inside, and pay for the milk, you are wrong.)

This is about a time that I stole something else (and I decided to keep it, too).

Let me start here.

There’s a rare and beautiful feeling that happens a few times in a lifetime, and it happens in a dressing room.

You’re trying on clothes. There’s a disappointing “no” stack of pants and tops piled on the bench. You reach for the next item (let’s say it’s a black dress), pull it from the hanger, and wiggle into it--your optimism for finding the right outfit all but diminished.

But wait! The clouds part. The stars align. You rub your eyes while you stare into the mirror and straighten up your posture. Who is that? You have transformed! You can’t help but pop a hip, turn around, and check yourself out. “DAYYUMMMM. I look good in this.”

And I mean, you don’t just look good in this dress. It’s comfortable. It’s versatile. The price is right. It’s so good you consider buying two so that you don’t have to wash it as often--not that it matters, though, because THIS DRESS ISN’T EVEN DRY-CLEAN ONLY.

It is a rare and beautiful feeling that only happens a few times in a lifetime. It’s a pure Marie Kondo “spark joy” moment.

Hi Professor, do you have a minute?

Well, that feeling--that’s how I felt on my first day as a college professor.

I stumbled into the position, really. My early career path was forged with a series of abrupt pivots. I started out working for communications companies, but found myself quickly disappointed with the administrative tasks that sat on my desk in lieu of creative projects. I went to grad school to study education because a teaching credential felt like a fun and meaningful thing to pursue. Education certainly felt like a nobler cause than arranging restaurant reservations for people who made 10 times more money than I did.

I graduated from the program, then taught high school English in urban Los Angeles for two years. I loved my students, my job, and my girls’ basketball team, but the burnout from the hours I spent and the energy I exuded started rumbling toward me like a freight train. I could probably keep up the pace for a year or two, but after that I’d be flattened.

I had seen peers from my graduating class teaching college courses at my alma mater. I wasn’t sure of their credentials, but I knew they were too young to have finished their PhDs. I had become a good teacher for high school students who were just a year or two younger than the college freshman. Would it really be all that different?

My university didn’t have any positions posted, but I reached out to some of my old professors with a resume and an offer to teach if any full time positions came up. I wasn’t optimistic I’d find anything, but...

The clouds parted. The stars aligned. The transformation happened. In the fall, I became Professor Navarro.

It was like wiggling into that perfect black dress. Before I became a professor, I’d been wearing a lot of clothes that fit me just fine. I looked presentable--I wasn’t unhappy in what I was wearing--but I never looked great enough to stop shopping.

Hi Professor, do you have a minute?

Daayyyyuummmm. Perfect fit.

That year, I taught public speaking and communication theory, two classes I hadn’t taken or studied since I was a college freshman. But for some reason, it didn’t matter. Even though I poured myself into my classes, the work didn’t feel hard. It was the first time since being a student myself that I didn’t feel resistance to the work I was doing. I was in full alignment, and because of that I was confident, got great feedback, and truly loved my work.

When my husband and I moved to Dallas the following year, I was lucky enough to forge a relationship with a local university and continue teaching communications to undergrads part time. A week ago, I finished teaching my eighth (and possibly my favorite) public speaking class. A lot has changed in the few years since I first started teaching. Two babies later, I’m showing up to work with far less sleep, likely some gray under these highlights, and definitely some extra pounds.

But dayyyyuuumm. The dress still fits.

Except for the fact that stole it.

I stole the dress. I’ve been strutting around for five years wearing it, but I’ve been looking over my shoulder waiting for someone to say, “Ma’am, did you pay for that dress? I’m sorry; it’s on hold for someone else. You’re going to need to take it off now.”

I gave myself a lot of reasons why I didn’t earn the dress. The most obvious was that I don’t have the academic credentials to call myself “Professor.” I never earned a PhD. I’m a visiting professor, an adjunct professor, a fill-in, a temp. At any moment, universities could stop inviting me to teach classes; it’s even happened before. A few universities have almost hired me to teach, only to stop the process when they see I don’t have the degree they require.

You’re going to need to take it off now.

So, I gave myself an ultimatum: either go to a doctoral program and become a real professor, or find something else you like to do.

I did a lot of research into doctoral programs, but I always got held up at the thought of moving cities (again) and becoming a full time student with no income and two small children. Instead, I’ve continued to teach classes as an adjunct and build my communications business.


Let’s read that last sentence again: Instead, I’ve continued to teach classes as an adjunct...

It’s funny how we tell ourselves what we can and can’t have, what we can and can’t be, what we can and can’t wear. I got so caught in this loop of feeling like an imposter, telling myself I was under qualified, and scrutinizing my own credentials that I neglected to realize the obvious: I’m still teaching. I’m still wearing the dress.

Semester after semester, I walk into university classrooms and introduce myself as Professor Navarro. And the only person in the room who questions that title is me.

One of the biggest transformations of my life happened not in a dressing room, but slowly over the past few years. The rule-following, 10-year-planning, 4.0-student in me realized that there are actually a lot of ways to become “eligible” or “qualified.” Sometimes it’s through experience and talent. Sometimes it’s with a degree or a certification. Sometimes it’s through relationships and asking for chances and getting lucky breaks and doing things before you even know how to do them. Hence, becoming Professor Navarro.

What I finally realized is this:

I don’t need a degree in order to be a professor.

I don’t need a receipt in order to keep the dress.

Hi Professor, do you have a minute?

Gotta go. There’s a student at my door.


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