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“Admit it, you’re incompetent. You’re not good enough, You’re a fraud.” - the Imposter Syndrome

Being the first at something can be a noble feat and a daring act.  First-generation college students are the first in their families to earn a college degree.  While there is pride in doing so, apprehension and fear can also set in. The panel, Underserved in the Land of Plenty, discussed how first-generation college students face unique barriers to the college-going experience which require additional support and resources.  Additionally, research shows that first-generation college students may experience an internal dialogue that questions their worthiness and ability to succeed in college (Ramsey & Brown, 2018).

This feeling may be further heightened for those attending highly selective institutions where they meet peers with, especially high accolades.  This is important to consider especially for first-generation college students in California as US News lists 13 colleges throughout California with an acceptance rate of 30% or less.  Stanford University, California Institute of Technology, and Pomona College are on this list which has acceptance rates under 10%.  For some, belonging to the 4%-30% acceptance rate can feel daunting, especially for first-generation college students who may fear being inadequate and mistakenly admitted to college.  These feelings are defined as the imposter syndrome (Clance & Imes, 1978).

The imposter syndrome is something I personally know about because I’ve experienced the feeling myself.  It is the pervasive feeling of self-doubt, insecurity and incompetence regardless of the awards, recognition, and college degrees I’ve earned along the way.  The imposter syndrome was initially defined as a phenomenon amongst women in the workplace during the 1970s (Clance & Imes, 1978).  The term expanded to include the feelings of inadequacy by underserved populations, including first-generation college students.  The imposter syndrome may manifest itself with feelings of being lucky rather than deserving, feeling like a fraud rather than being competent, or feeling like no achievement is ever good enough.

Given these challenges, you and your student are never alone.

Entering college, your student will meet brilliant professors and well-accomplished peers who may also identify with the imposter syndrome.  As your student’s college journey unfolds, you are well-positioned to uplift your student as they feel their way through college.  Although feelings associated with the imposter syndrome may never subside completely, there are ways to manage these feelings.  Try practicing the BARE method with your student:

  • Break the Cycle: Write down 3 steps to take to feel positive and affirmed
  • Awareness: Identity triggering moments that heighten feelings of imposter syndrome
  • Recognition: Name three areas that may be impacted by imposter syndrome (school, work, sports, social life, etc.)
  • Externalize: Write down challenges that have already been accomplished

This method can be revisited over time and can create positive stories about who we are and where we belong.  Let’s be reminded of the 2-time Ivy League graduate and former First Lady, Michelle Obama who shares, “I still have a little imposter syndrome; it never goes away, that feeling that you shouldn’t take me that seriously.  I share that with you because we all have doubts.”  Sharing stories like this can raise awareness and normalize the internal struggle many of us share.  Now is the time to text this article link to your student and talk with them about how they’ve been impacted by imposter syndrome.  Remind them that they are not alone, that they are enough, and they belong.  You and your student can also follow me on Instagram @dr_lisa_caldera for daily coaching on persisting through the college-going experience.

 

References

Clance, P.R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The impostor phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, and Practice, 15(3), 241-247.

Ramsey, E., & Brown, D. (2018). Feeling like a fraud: Helping students renegotiate their academic identities. College & Undergraduate Libraries, 25(1), 86-90.

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Born in the San Gabriel Valley but raised in Moreno Valley, CA, Dr. Lisa Caldera is a first-generation college student from a low-income family background. She became the first person in her family to earn a doctorate and dedicated her research to undocumented college student experiences. She serves as the Senior Associate Dean leading a team of case managers who oversee crisis response, support, and resources for all Stanford undergraduates.