First-Generation Students and the Imposter Syndrome

Posted on Jul. 21, 2020 | By Michiale Schneider, Attigo Senior Trainer, B.Ed., M.Ed. AFC®

Fall term is just around the corner. And that means new beginnings, new classes, and a new group of first-generation (first-gen) students being welcomed to your school. The tapestry of a new year is weaving together. As exciting as this is for most students, some may face mixed emotions, including anxiety. Anyone can feel out of place, but this is especially true for many first-gen college students. Apprehension, self-doubt, and lack of college knowledge can influence behavior and performance. Feeling overwhelmed, concerned about next steps, or even who to turn to for help can exacerbate these issues.

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There are numerous ways to identify first-gen students, but most schools rely on self-reporting, usually via the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or an institutional form. How does your institution define these students? How congruent is it to the way your students are self-identifying? Oftentimes, there’s a gap between the two and students can easily slip into that space between. One article in the New York Times asked, “Are you first-gen? Depends on who’s asking”. This emphasizes an important point “to figure out what first-generation really means"…especially in regard to the goals of higher education. Schools then need to know what they’re going to do with the definition.

First-Gen Diversity

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I recently listened to a TEDx talk done by Todd Hibbs, Alma College Wrestling Coach, who defined first-gen college students as “Those who blaze a courageous and new college path, beyond that of their parents.” He highlights some of the challenges and obstacles they often face. I could see myself in much of what he described as I, too, was a first-gen college student. There are various facets to being one. For example, a coworker and I were both first-gen college students. I came from a low-income family while she did not. She lived on campus, I lived at home. Yet, we faced similar issues regarding not understanding the collegiate culture, managing expectations, and where to turn for help when it was needed.

In one instance, I vividly recall overhearing students in class discussing “pre-reg”. I had no idea that was an acronym for early registration for the next term and I ended up not getting into a course I wanted because it was full by the time I registered. What else didn’t I know? I was filled with uncertainty. Was it going to impact my financial aid? What other missteps was I making? Was this REALLY for me? Did I even DESERVE to be here? Panic crept in while self-sabotaging thoughts swirled around my head. While I didn’t realize the name for it, I was experiencing the “imposter syndrome”.

Imposter Syndrome

HappySadFacesWhen I read this article “How Imposter Syndrome Holds Back First-Generation College Students,” I realized how common this feeling is.  According to the article, “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.”

Some first-gen students may not quickly transition to college. It’s easy to feel isolated and alone. One student interviewed by ABC News said, “I never had anyone explain what it was going to be like” and “You feel the only reason you are there is because somebody made a mistake.”

Create Connections

To help alleviate the imposter syndrome, first-gen students may need help feeling a connection to the institution—a sense of belonging.

  • making-connectionsProactive measures and strategies can increase their chances of success, such as additional touch points and support mechanisms to facilitate aligning their goals and visions.
  • Invite upperclassmen who are also first-gen students to act as mentors.
  • Talk about their student experience—early and often. Are they feeling disconnected? Did they have a positive onboarding experience? Are they familiar with student organizations on campus? Do they know where to receive academic assistance, if needed?

One study indicated that “for every meeting with an advisor the odds that a student is retained increases by 13%. Furthermore, the findings support key elements of higher-education retention theories, specifically that student interaction, engagement, and involvement prove instrumental in keeping students enrolled.” The article went on to “advocate that colleges and universities recognize the unique needs of first-generation students and make academic advising a priority for them.” Helping students to overcome obstacles such as imposter syndrome can increase their opportunities for a successful, robust, and rewarding academic career.

Free webinars to help you help your first-gen students

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10 Things Students Need to Know When They Start School
8/5/2020 at 11:00 AM CDT


Navigating First-generation Students to Success
8/6/2020 at 2:00 PM CDT

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