Freshman year of college is defined by change. A change in friends, a change in living situations and a change in levels of independence can lead to happiness, anxiety and even confusion. One aspect of change that is not widely discussed, however, is the change in academic environment in relation to one’s experiences with their fellow students — particularly, the incident that often stems from this change, known as “impostor syndrome.” Impostor syndrome is a ubiquitous phenomenon wherein an individual who found success in high school comes to college and finds themselves surrounded by people who are just as accomplished in academics and extracurriculars, if not more. This results in a feeling of inadequacy and a questioning of how much one deserves to be at the college they attend. It can even lead to an individual writing off their accomplishments as “luck” or “accidental.” This psychological pattern of doubting oneself can even lead to a detriment in mental health, often in the forms of depression or anxiety.
On this topic, Iman Husain ‘22, a freshman at Brown University, wrote to me, “When you’re operating within a bubble full of the brightest, most interesting people, it’s hard not to feel like some miraculous fluke or flaw in the fabric of the universe brought you there. This feeling is only exacerbated by the culture of maintaining a façade of intellectualism that many people turn to as a means to mask insecurity.” As Husain’s anecdote illustrates, the self-doubt that impostor syndrome can cause stifles college students from exploring their full potential and from being honest with both themselves and those around them.
While anyone can experience impostor syndrome, it tends to hit first-generation/low-income students and students of color particularly hard. When discussing this phenomenon with Yurema Perez-Hinojosa ‘20, a junior at Brown who identifies as a female student of color, she detailed an experience she had in high school, when she was accepted to Brown as an early decision admit. A classmate of hers, who she identified as a “straight, white male,” was deferred to the regular decision pool. After finding out about Perez-Hinojosa’s acceptance, this classmate continually berated her through asking questions about her parents’ college legacy and the content of her supplements. Rather than believing that she had been accepted through her own merit, he detracted from her accomplishments and indirectly attributed her success to factors outside of her intelligence.
Perez-Hinojosa’s experience is reflective of an omnipresent attitude towards students from marginalized communities in academia. Within a society where straight, white and male are seen as “default” identities, minority students have already been made to feel different. While the experiences of minority students are nuanced and cannot truly be expressed or reflected on in a broad and homogenized way, it is safe to say that often, students of color are used to their accomplishments or their acceptances to university being attributed to their race and their capacity to fill a quota rather than their abilities, which can cause them to second-guess themselves in the long run. Meanwhile, students from affluent backgrounds are often made to feel throughout their life as though they have a “right” to success, and that they deserve whatever they achieve, regardless of the privilege that helped them along the way.
To any student struggling with impostor syndrome, I recommend a couple of tricks for dealing with it. First, write down every reason why you are qualified to be at the school that you are on a piece of paper. Revisit this piece of paper whenever you start to forget your worth and use it as a reminder as to why you deserve what you have achieved. Additionally, talk to your friends and classmates about how you’re feeling because, chances are, they’re feeling the same way. To first generation, low-income students and students of color: Alongside talking to friends, seek out programs at your school that are directed towards the demographics that you identify within; many institutions house individuals who have experienced what you are going through and who are trained to offer you advice and support. My last recommendation is to face impostor syndrome head-on. Don’t fight or bottle up what you’re feeling but instead, recognize it and ask yourself exactly why it is that you’re feeling the way that you are. Most of all, don’t get lost in the accomplishments of others while forgetting your own. College is a place to explore and grow into yourself; let your experience encompass this.