Last August, I sat in front of my laptop during orientation. I couldn’t stop worrying about how silly I looked on Zoom. While other first-years discussed how they spent their summers reading French philosophy or learning a second language, I was thinking about how I spent mine washing dishes in a Wendy’s. My head was a jumble. All of a sudden, I felt like I wasn’t enough. I felt like a fraud, and I was sure everyone knew it.
Psychologists call this sensation imposter syndrome (IS) or imposter phenomenon. IS causes your mind to lie and tell you that you aren’t smart or rich enough to belong — that you aren’t doing enough. It is a feeling of self-doubt so strong that even your achievements feel like losses. It is estimated that 70% of people will experience feelings of IS at least once in their lifetime, often in college. We must recognize that IS diminishes diversity, educational quality and the well-being of our peers and faculty.
Psychologist Audrey Ervin stated that IS applies to anyone “who isn’t able to internalize and own their successes.” For instance, high-achieving students from all backgrounds set unrealistic goals and expectations to seem like the “ideal” undergraduate. But that ideal is a trap that causes students to feel like a fraud. The pretense to be perfect prevents individuals from prospering in academics, work and relationships. As a result, college is no longer about pursuing academic growth, but about appeasing IS.
Students from marginalized communities feel that pressure, especially acutely, even among those who excelled academically prior to college. Many minority, low-income, disabled and first-generation students simply don’t have the privilege of support, which deprives them of the affirmation and advice helpful in overcoming IS. This isn’t to say that individuals who have access to support systems can’t develop IS, but minorities often lack the support of empathetic advisers, counselors or parents with academic degrees. When you couple underrepresentation with a lack of support, it is easy to feel confused, alone and, in the case of IS, fraudulent.
Not only are students from marginalized communities predisposed to develop IS, but they are also already conditioned to feel like outsiders. IS strips people of their authenticity and threatens diversity. Especially at predominantly white institutions, there is pressure on students and staff to display a certain level of prestige and intelligence. This places unreasonable expectations on minority students, and they are set up to feel further out of place. This catastrophic pressure to be the cookie-cutter Western standard of perfection is ridiculous. It builds and buries students in the rubble of insecurity. How can academic institutions expect to build a diverse, inclusive class when diverse students feel like imposters? Inclusivity isn’t a quirk. When institutions preach about inclusion, diversity and acceptance but forgo the necessary steps to ensure those things, there is a systemic issue. This is true whether or not that underrepresentation is classified as one of illness, economics, sex, gender or race. There is an obvious disparity between the represented and underrepresented, a gap that IS exacerbates by compelling insecure students to assimilate.
Despite its serious implications, IS is still not a recognized mental illness. Given the extent to which IS detracts from individuals’ life experiences, though, this needs to change. Take, for instance, the impact of IS on undergraduates. Professors at the University of Cincinnati found that IS causes underrepresented students to disengage from academic and social activities like joining clubs, going to campus gatherings and attending classes. The study also concluded that those with IS have constant feelings of inadequacy and exhibit an unhealthy pressure to succeed. IS prevents scholarly growth, and prestigious institutions aren’t doing enough to change this prevalent problem.
Universities, institutions and students should do more. We must provide more advising resources to the groups most susceptible to IS. There should be an extension of financial and academic support systems to include everyone, since seeking guidance may be especially difficult for underrepresented groups. IS begins when individuals feel fraudulent and unworthy, so if you’re a student, change that. Learn to love people as they are, and learn to dispel unreasonable expectations of what a friend, student or peer should look like because everyone belongs here.
At Emory, I have noticed a one-size-fits-all, impersonal approach to advising and friendships. While I have met quite a few humble, kind and accepting staff and students, quite a few is clearly not enough. Preventing students, staff and faculty from feeling like imposters begins with accepting and allowing authenticity. Let’s normalize pre-med students in the theater and love pre-laws in the anime club. We must stop pressuring students to be prepackaged units of perfection — because then those students are less students than they are products of a machine.
Whether you spent the summer reading French philosophy or scrubbing dishes in a Wendy’s washroom, you belong. Begin to accept your peers, your faculty and yourselves. You don’t need to be perfect to be loved, and you don’t need to be perfect to love others.
Chloe Wegryznowicz (24C) is from Catawissa, Pennsylvania.