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Overcoming Imposter Syndrome as a First-Generation College Student

Stacee Reicherzer and the text: Staee L. Reicherzer, PhD, Clinical Faculty, SNHU Master's in Counseling Program.

First-generation college students face unique challenges that go well beyond adjusting to academic rigor.

People who are the first in their families to attend college often experience nagging internal messages about whether they're smart enough to finish a degree and even whether they deserve to be in college. The competing priorities of work and family can contribute additional stressors, often leading a student to ask, "Why am I here?"

As a licensed professional counselor, educator and academic leader who was the first in my family to attend college, I've been talking students down from deciding to drop out for more than a decade. Here are the three most common reasons I've heard from students wanting to drop out, and my responses to each.

I'm not sure it's worth it

This statement isn't necessarily about how much money the student would expect to earn upon graduating. I often find that within this assertion is a subtext: "I'm not sure if I'm worth it." This speaks to a much deeper questioning of whether the student believes she or he has a right to be in college.

When I recognize students are experiencing this, I ask them to bring to mind a previous situation that felt similarly doubtful at first but is no longer so. Students often surprise themselves as they name stories about their marriages, in parenting (a big one), a cross-country move, a new job and so forth. Whereas each of these experiences may have started off as scary and continues to have scary moments (parenting, in particular), the initial stress and worry dissipated as the student developed competencies in these new situations.

I then ask the students to tell me what they did to overcome the doubt. Usually the conversation centers around trial and error and eventual acceptance that comes from trusting their ability to learn from mistakes and grow through doubts.

Certainly, there are times in which stress revisits students, particularly in moments of trying to learn especially difficult material. This often brings people to think:

I don't know if I'm smart enough to do this

As a person who's sobbed over a stats book while uttering, "I guess I'm just stupid," in between fistfuls of popcorn and Hostess Ding Dongs, I can relate. Math anxiety and its bigger, meaner companion, stats anxiety, are very real; but it can be any combination of difficult coursework, a faculty member who demands the best, and challenging life circumstances that lead students to question their abilities.

I remind students in these circumstances that faculty really do want them to succeed and, in fact, experience a deep sense of satisfaction from helping someone overcome learning barriers.

I invite students to begin with the end of the course in mind, focusing on being this instructor's success story. "What would that story be?" I ask, inviting the student to identify actions and steps for reaching out to the instructor and getting help that's needed.

This also serves as a good opportunity to make students aware of academic support services that they may have not yet considered, such as the Writing Center and tutoring.

Sometimes, the questions of belonging become focused on the instructor. This often leads students to say:

The teacher has it in for me

While I'll not dismiss that students do sometimes encounter a college instructor who truly has blind spots and is unfair, my observation has been that the belief of disparity is often rooted in classroom struggles from years or even decades prior.

This is easy to understand when considering that in a diverse community of adult students, some carry childhood legacies of teachers who dismissed or humiliated them for their learning style or intellectual ability, their classroom behavior, or some aspect of their being over which they had no control.

Before investigating the matter with an instructor, I dig a little deeper with the student and may reframe the situation. This gives students a chance to talk out some of their inner dialogue, which most often helps them see that maybe the faculty member's intention isn't to mistreat them.

Valuing student input as I do and not wanting to waste what may be an opportunity to give good feedback to a faculty member, I'll next ask the student to talk through how they'd proceed from the faculty member's position if they encountered a student who was similarly struggling. This helps the student and me frame who needs to take next steps to address the situation.

It's clear to me that first-generation students have the same needs and insecurities that all college students experience, but they are sometimes amped up due to uncertainty about what to expect from higher education. When these resourceful individuals overcome their initial experiences of fear and doubt, they not only gain the valuable classroom content knowledge but also learn a great deal about their own efficacy as change agents who have the ability and, even more fundamentally, the right to achieve.

Dr. Stacee Reicherzer is the associate dean of Counseling Programs at Southern New Hampshire University.

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