Overcoming imposter syndrome as a first-generation college student, from those who’ve done it

Imposter syndrome – doubting your achievements and feeling like a fraud – can really derail your college journey and career path. We spoke with folks who know all about it to find out what you can do to overcome it.

January 13, 2022 · 5 Min Read

Overcoming imposter syndrome as a first-generation college student, from those who’ve done it

If you're the first in your family to go to college, you might feel like you just don't belong. That feeling is called imposter syndrome. Here's how to kick it.

18-year-old Gloria Ancheta showed up to her first day at Baylor University with a few possessions stuffed into a couple of bags she could carry by herself. As she swung open the door to her new dorm room, she saw her roommate had already moved in.

"This girl had everything: a fancy Mac, a mini fridge, themed decorations," said Ancheta. "I was like: I do not belong here."

Ancheta grew up the daughter of El Salvadoran immigrants. In elementary school, teachers quickly realized she was very bright. They wanted to put her in gifted and talented classes.

"Even then, I didn't feel like I deserved any kind of recognition. I told them no," said Ancheta. "My parents didn't have papers yet. My family had this protective mindset: 'You're different. People will treat you differently; they will say things to you.' So I felt like my teachers were probably wrong about me and I should just keep my head down."

It was a mindset that would stick with her. Ancheta disenrolled from Baylor within a week of arriving. She went home to work two jobs to help support her family. Eventually, she enrolled in a nursing program at a nearby university, but couldn't maintain passing grades while working full-time and living alone. She dropped out, again.

"It's a lot to handle when you don't have anyone in your life who can tell you how to succeed in an unfamiliar world. I felt like there were so many things I didn't know."

Now at 35, Ancheta is going back to school with some help from her employer to complete a BA in business management. "I've been really successful at my job. I do a lot of training, coaching, development, and marketing. But I feel like I can't go any further without a degree," Ancheta said. "So that's a goal of mine, to finally get that piece of paper."

She wants to raise her own young daughters with a different mindset than the one she grew up with. "I want them to feel like the world is theirs for the taking. I don't want them to be afraid, to feel like they don't belong. I want them to go for it."

Imposter syndrome

When Ancehta stood in that dorm room overwhelmed with insecurity, she was experiencing something called imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome, first described by researchers in the 1970s, is the awful, quiet fear that you're actually a fraud: that your success is an accident, that everyone else knows more than you do, and that you don't deserve to be where you are.

While anyone can experience imposter syndrome, research has shown that family, heritage, gender, culture, socioeconomic status, age, and race can all play a role.

For many first-generation students who have worked hard to get to college, imposter syndrome can be a huge obstacle to staying in school and thriving.

Five tips for overcoming imposter syndrome in college as a first generation student

We get it; those stats are pretty discouraging. But you're not a statistic. So we spoke with other first-gen students, a career coach, and a university counselor about what you can do to combat imposter syndrome in college and embrace the success you definitely deserve.

Recognize the problem

Kaitlyn Fikaris was the first woman in her family to graduate high school, and the first person to attend college. She failed her freshman year. "I was broke, I was overwhelmed, I struggled with motivation," she said. "Once my GPA was below a 2.0, it just confirmed my feeling that I didn't belong there."

It took a while to put a name to her experience. "When I realized I was suffering from imposter syndrome, it was like a light went on in my head," Fikaris said.

She would go on to write her senior thesis about the unique challenges faced by first-generation college students, including imposter syndrome. "This should really be a much bigger conversation."

Cassandra Salgado, director of the Northwestern Academy, works directly with first-gen students in Chicago. She agrees that identifying imposter syndrome is the first step to overcoming it.

"But recognizing imposter syndrome can be really hard! One trick I recommend is paying close attention to your confusion cues and the thoughts that follow."

Say you get a bad grade on an assignment, but you're confused about the professor's feedback. If your next thought is: "I shouldn't be here; I don't even understand this feedback," then you're dealing with imposter syndrome.

"Remind yourself that everyone feels this way sometimes, and there are practical things you can do about it," said Salgado.

Be deliberate

Salgado gives very specific advice, in the case of the confusing feedback: Write down exactly what you're confused about. Make an appointment with your professor or TA. Ask questions until you get clarity. "A lot of students are afraid to look stupid. But professors are there to answer your questions; they want to."

Salgado always tells her first-gen students that asking good questions and communicating with professors are technical skills that can be learned.

"No one exits the womb knowing how to navigate academic spaces," she said. "Some people will pick a lot of that up unconsciously along the way, because there are folks in their lives who have done it before. Others have to be more deliberate about learning."

She encourages students to see what they don't know as an advantage. "You are in a unique position to do some very precise skills development. Pay attention to tactics you can use to get what you need in this new environment," advised Salgado. "Practice them; master them: you'll start to realize that you belong just as much as anyone else."

Lay down the burden of opportunity

One struggle that no one really talks about is the way first-gen students are torn between wanting to succeed and a fear of success.

"On the one hand, you have a lot of guilt: I have it all, compared to my family. I should just be grateful. I owe them success," said Fikaris.

But Fikaris found it difficult to balance the burden of opportunity with the realization that success meant leaving her family behind.

"I felt very much that 'this isn't what my family does' — you know? Like my self-growth would be a kind of betrayal of the people I love and our shared identity."

Salgado points out that this combination of pressure and fear contributes to imposter syndrome. Consciously set them both aside, she said.

"Remember that family relationships change over time. That will happen whether you stay in school or not. Instead ask: Why are you going to college? What is the value of this experience to you? If you can answer that, you'll be more motivated to keep going."

Talk about it

It's also important to understand that imposter syndrome thrives in isolation.

"The hardest part was that I had no one to talk to, at first. My mom would call to see how I was doing and I would just lie. I felt like I couldn't complain," said Fikaris. She found a therapist to help her cope.

Not everyone has access to a therapist, noted Jessica Johnson, a long-time social worker who became a life coach to college students this year. But it's crucial to find someone to talk to — even better if they are a first-gen student themselves.

"It's so powerful to realize you aren't the only one," said Johnson.

And these days, it's easier than ever to find like-minded communities. Johnson recommends the facebook group Empowering First-Generation College Students for connecting with people of all ages who can offer support, solidarity, and advice.

Link up to resources

Your university also provides a wealth of resources you should take advantage of.

"A lot of first-generation students don't realize that their tuition money is what pays for all the 'free' resources on campuses, like counselors, writing centers, and student organizations," said Johnson.

"The fact is, you're about to spend at least four years at an institution created to build you up and prepare you for the future that you want. Make the most of the tools available to you! You may never have easy access to so many amazing resources focused on your personal development again."

Some resources to look for

  • Many schools host workshops specifically for first-gen students.
  • Many institutions have identity-led clubs, coalitions, and resources centers just for BIPOC and first-gen students.
  • Counselling and mental health services are often available to help you adjust.
  • Student employment offices can help you find work that fits your new schedule.

Here at Lantern, we believe you have what it takes to succeed — and that you deserve every good thing that comes to you. So if you are ready to find the right educational path for you, explore your best online options with Lantern's StudyMatch.