Interning While Black: Battling Imposter Syndrome

Tahir Juba, 19 (Black) – Baltimore, MD

Tech company intern

This summer, I’ve been interning at a tech company that makes mobile apps.

Even before I started my internship, I anticipated the racial dynamic. I rarely see African-Americans in professional STEM environments. Being young, black and Muslim, it’s a little intimidating working in a place without many people of color.

Besides race, the main thing that made me nervous about starting my tech internship was the skill differences between the other workers and me. I haven’t done much with coding or web development before coming into a big company like this.  I took one robotics class in high school, and it felt pretty basic. While other people here are computer science majors, I’m mostly self-taught. I watch YouTube instructional videos and check out online learning sites to sharpen my web and coding skills.

But sometimes, I still feel like I really shouldn’t be here.

So I come up with ways to cope. I learned about code-switching in my African-American Literature class, and I try to implement that at work. I use a more professional, standard vocabulary so that I won’t stand out even more, based on the way that I speak. I say, “Good morning,” to people instead of “What’s up?” I never use slang. I ditch my jeans and graphic t-shirts for a button-up shirt and khakis. I dress business-casual even though other interns do not. It helps me feel like I belong.

But I feel lucky. My company has done a lot to make me feel comfortable in this setting, where I could otherwise feel like an outsider. Everyone is very nice and helpful here. They’re open to taking on interns like me who don’t have a lot of experience, and they encourage me to learn on the job. I know a few of the other interns are black. Not that I’ve met them in person, but I’ve seen them in the intern group photo. So I know they exist. That’s comforting.

My long-term goal is to do something in robotics and engineering. I think that robotics could make the world a lot better, especially when it comes to the environment, using solar and clean energy. I know that means I’ll continue to deal with “imposter syndrome.” But I’m hopeful that as more minority people like me go into the tech industry, the more natural it will feel to see people in these jobs who talk the way we talk, joke the way we joke, and dress the way we dress.

Until then, I’ll try to convince myself — and everyone else — that I really do belong here.

Tahir Juba is a part of Wide Angle Youth Media in Baltimore, Maryland and a correspondent for  Youth Radio. His essay appeared as part of a Youth Radio collaboration with the New York Times’ Race/Related.

Listen Now