The phrase, I am more than enough, has become a mantra, particularly for many first generation students, students of color, and other college-going populations who are not a part of the dominant campus culture.
As powerful as this affirmation sounds, however, we must pause for a moment to consider—is this merely a great sounding statement, or do underrepresented students authentically own and take to heart the truth embodied in these five words?
Most college students at some point experience self-doubt. We know these feelings can be exacerbated for first-generation students and students of color, as they may encounter different degrees of isolation, disconnection, and uncertainty when navigating environments that have not been designed specifically for their needs (Gurin, Dey, Hurtado, & Gurin, 2002). While we have made gains in promoting inclusive spaces, many institutions still reflect mismatches between students’ identities and dominant campus culture and include experiences that covey underrepresented students don’t belong or are not good enough (Leonard, 2015). Such overt or subtle messages not only erode underrepresented students’ self-confidence, but lead them to overestimate the abilities of others, underestimate their own talents and skills, and may cause them to craft façades that mask their fears and struggles (Parkman, 2016).
Some refer to this façade building among students as Imposter Phenomenon (Parkman, 2016). Ironically, the imposter phenomenon tends to exist among high-achieving, accomplished, and ambitious students, who have demonstrated the ability to succeed despite the odds (Parkman, 2016). But why would high-achieving underrepresented students feel the need to build a façade or project alternate, positive impressions of their struggles?
Interestingly enough for some students, their history of achievement and success, the honor of representing family and community as the “first” or “one of a few” in college, and the desire not to let anyone down, becomes an unexpected weight that students may not know how to negotiate or express. These sentiments by themselves are not bad things and can actually fuel underrepresented student achievement (Mitchall & Jaeger, 2018). Such feelings left unmanaged, however, can result in students’ adopting unhealthy strategies for success.
Your impact and influence as a parent or family member are one of our very best resources! Not only can you help your student “normalize” these feelings, you can provide options for them to not mask their struggles, but be open, hopeful, and reassuring. How can I do this? We’re glad you asked!
Our campuses need parents and family who:
- Balance messages of high expectation and excitement with underrepresented students, by acknowledging that challenges and setbacks are expected, inevitable, and not the end of their story;
- Talk openly about their own setbacks and share, who/what helped you move forward;
- Emphasize progress over perfection! We tend to measure college success by grades, semesters, and “noticeable” milestones. Ask your student about something that is different or better than it was the day before, the week before, and so on;
- Celebrate small wins! Focus a conversation (or two), only on things your student is proud of – no matter how small;
- Ask your student about their worries and concerns—and just listen. Remember, the imposter phenomenon exaggerates or overestimates a negative outcome. These are opportunities to help your student reframe reality, get connected to resources that will “normalize” their concerns, and help them tackle issues one step at a time;
- Inquire about the services the college offers to build student resilience, self-esteem/healthy self-perception and connects students to others who are navigating or have overcome similar challenges—particularly these kinds of services in place for underrepresented students; your knowledge of and discussion about campus resources increases the likelihood that your student will take advantage of them;
- Remind them of the strengths that got them to this point. College is not only for learning about new things; it is designed to draw out of your student, the gifts, skills, and talents they already possess.
It can be easy for underrepresented students to question if they belong – especially in college environments that may not be aware of or know how to address their needs. For some of our students, these institutional deficits results in them working harder to project an image that they “have it all together,”—when in fact, they do not. Colleges must continue to reimagine their environments to reduce the gaps between underrepresented student needs and their ability to ensure all students thrive. As this work continues, we must do what we can to shape and positively influence students’ internal narrative—such that they believe and know, they are indeed more than enough.
Gurin, P., Dey, E. L., Hurtado, S., Gurin, G. (2002). Diversity and higher education: theory and impact on educational outcomes. Harvard Educational Review, 72(3), 330-366.
Leonard, D., (2014). Imposter syndrome: academic identity under siege? The Chronicle, webpage blog post downloaded Dec. 4, 2022.
Mitchall, A., & Jaeger, A. (2018). Parental influences on low-income, first-generation students’ motivation on the path to college. Journal of Higher Education, 89(4), 582-609.
Parkman, A. (2016). The imposter phenomenon in higher education: incident and impact.