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How Imposter Syndrome Holds Back First-Generation College Students

‘There was this strange disconnect with my family, with other students and with my own goals. It made me really frustrated, like I wanted to quit. I felt like I was burning out.’

The cost of education seems to be on everyone’s minds with the Democratic primaries nearing, especially with Elizabeth Warren yesterday announcing her plan to erase a huge swath of college debt immediately after taking office, even without Congressional approval

Fellow progressive Bernie Sanders argues for an even more generous policy than Warren’s, while middle-of-the-road Dems like Joe Biden and Mike Bloomberg have stuck to vague riffs on “affordable” college. Whatever the plan, it’s clear that more and more young people need support to access higher education — especially in an America that has more college degrees than ever before

Some of the biggest burdens fall on so-called “first-generation” students — kids whose parents never went to college. A new study looked into whether this cohort of students experienced the challenges of college differently than their “continuing-generation” peers. The research, conducted by psychology experts from Washington State University and Indiana University, found that being in highly competitive courses triggered strong feelings of imposter syndrome in first-generation students, much more than in students who had at least one parent that attended college. 

Imposter syndrome is basically believing that you don’t belong or don’t deserve to be somewhere; the sensation often leads to anxiety or depressive thoughts about whether the person can keep up. Notably, first-gen and continuing-gen students expressed an equal volume of “imposter feelings” when presented with non-competitive scenarios. But within the context of a challenging STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) course, first-gen students were far more likely to feel that they can’t fit in and ultimately succeed. 

The report sheds new insight on what factors can worsen the emotional toll of navigating college without a knowledgeable support system at home, but it sounds mostly like common sense to Katie Lim, a 24-year-old who was the first in her family to earn a bachelor’s degree when she graduated in 2017. It was hard enough not being able to ask her parents for advice, to share their own stories and bond over that chapter of life. But she still learned from them, and school administrators, that going to college was a hugely significant step in her young life. As such, without realizing it, Lim internally cranked up the pressure to “win school, basically.” The reality on campus, meanwhile, made her feel alone in that goal.

“Freshman year taught me that a lot of kids just consider college a given, and don’t care at all about the work they have to do. So then why am I freaking out so bad about not having the top grade on an econ exam?” she tells me. “There was this strange disconnect with my family, with other students and with my own goals. It made me really frustrated, like I wanted to quit. I felt like I was burning out.” 

Lim was raised in a working-class family of Taiwanese immigrants, and her mother extolled the virtues of an American degree, drilling the belief that a college diploma was her way out of a legacy of manual labor. Like with many other first-gen college students, the stress for her wasn’t just about the unfamiliar — it was about race, class and progress toward the platonic American Dream. 

The imposter syndrome study followed more than 800 college freshmen and sophomores enrolled in STEM courses at major universities. They were given surveys to gauge how competitive their courses were; then, six weeks into the term, they began doing daily surveys that explored feelings of struggling or not fitting in (using statements like, “In class, I feel like people might find out I am not as capable as they think I am”).  

Unsurprisingly, increasing imposter feelings led to poorer outcomes on grades, engagement, attendance and overall performance, with a “much greater” effect on first-gen students. This is a big red flag given that STEM needs more diversity, both in terms of race and socioeconomic background, in its ranks. We’ve known for some time that first-gen students face more hurdles than the average college kid: They take out more in loans, they’re less likely than continuing-gen students to obtain a bachelor’s degree, and they have a higher risk of dropout if they’re not “college-ready” by the time they show up for freshman year. 

We also know that a substantial percentage of first-gen students come from poorer households, with Black and Hispanic students being overrepresented. Toss in the fact that the hypercompetitive nature of STEM study inherently leads to lots of burnout, and you’ve got a pretty ugly picture of how the American educational system is failing the young minds who are taking a shot at college and its promises of long-term achievement. Imposter syndrome is awfully hard on mental health, after all. 

I’m reminded of what Javier Cabral, Mexican-American food writer and editor of the news and culture site L.A. Taco, told me when we discussed the tragedy of losing touch with a mother language. His parents could barely read and write in Spanish, let alone English, leaving him with the odd feeling of having to educate his parents while figuring out school by himself, too. The tension of being “the first” in his family in so many ways led to moments of doubt about his identity, Cabral said. 

“In a backwards way, the education of your parents directly reflects whether there’s progress in the next generation. Because when you have a certain education level, you also have that layer of pride in achieving it, and a layer of wanting to conserve that in your kids, and that perspective of having stood on the outside, looked in and figured it out,” he explained. 

Maybe it’s also worth reconsidering the culture of competition within STEM, too. The study notes that first-gen students often come from environments that “more strongly value communality and collaboration relative to their continuing-generation peers.” More collaboration is a pretty solid prescription for many STEM industries these days, given the toxic ways that competition has fueled bad science and undermined the public interest. It’s kind of ironic, too, that the metrics used in classrooms to gauge achievement (like standardized tests) often prioritize completing skills better than the next guy over — even when many of the skills tested will be replaced by emerging technologies, including A.I. 

“Asian countries like Japan and South Korea have benefited enormously from having skilled workforces. But technical chops are just one ingredient needed for innovation and economic success. America overcomes its disadvantage — a less-technically-trained workforce — with other advantages such as creativity, critical thinking and an optimistic outlook,” Fareed Zakaria argues in a Washington Post op-ed criticizing America’s STEM obsession. 

In the meantime, there are concrete ways to help first-gen college students stave off the endless, marching gloom of nagging imposter syndrome. More colleges are creating unique resources for this cohort, and high school counselors are catching up, too. One UCLA student, Violet Salazar, even organized an entire dorm floor specifically for first-gen students so that they can feel at home. 

For her part, Lim leaned on school resources and reached out to a club of first-gen students in her search for people who could relate, and she says it would have been tough to stay motivated without such a support system. Over time, the pressure of perfection began to fade as she learned the rhythms of engineering school. She talked to graduates who were out of engineering (happily) altogether, and heard tales from faculty about how they rekindled their love of the subject when burnout seemed to loom. 

“The imposter feeling never went away. I’m not sure it ever does, right?” she says with a self-effacing giggle. “But eventually, I learned my own way of doing things, rather than rushing to be the best, or else. I’m lucky I stuck with it, I guess.”