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Op-ed: For students of color, impostor syndrome can add to the challenge of college

By Nicolas Cevallos

April 2, 2019 9:42 p.m.

It was a crisp fall evening, a month into my third year at UCLA. I was tenaciously studying away in my favorite lounge on campus when an old peer named Brice approached me. He and I took almost every lower division course together and he was someone who was not afraid to share his opinion on any topic.

The topic of medical school came up in our small talk, and Brice said I had the best chance of getting in. When I asked why, he said, “It’s because you are Mexican, right?”

I froze in disbelief, unsure how to respond.

Microaggressions are subtle acts of racism that happen consciously or unconsciously to people of color. At most higher education institutions, it is not uncommon for the racial breakdown to be up to, if not more than, 70% white and Asian, and thus not hard for these comments to find many students of color.

As a Latinx student, I find myself, along with many other students of color, having to conquer more than weekly problem sets and quizzes. We consistently fight for the respect and approval from peers and faculty that we belong on campus. And we fight off discrimination in our everyday lives while also struggling with impostor syndrome – when an individual feels like an intellectual fraud when they have achieved success in rigorous situations.

During my first two years at UCLA, I experienced many preconceived expectations from certain peers and faculty. I heard comments such as, “Nicolas, you are the first smart Mexican I have ever met,” or even had a teaching assistant triple check that I received the correct score because he could not believe that I could have received the second highest grade in the class. These experiences made me feel like an impostor and believe each time I succeeded, it was luck and not the hard work I put in.

As a chemistry Peer Learning Facilitator for the Academic Advancement Program, I learned I was not the only one that shared these insecurities. Many of the students in my sections would come to me in secret, afraid they could not succeed and compete with their white and Asian peers. They clung to the idea that it was a fluke when they succeeded, hearing statistics like how only less than 12% of Latinx and African-Americans combined make up the matriculant pool for medical school. They also notice how the professors teaching science courses rarely share their backgrounds or look like them.

Impostor syndrome is an issue plaguing students of color across college campuses. According to the University of Texas at Austin, impostor syndrome feelings have been found to enhance anxiety and depression in a higher frequency among students of color. In addition, these students are more likely than white students to experience stress resulting from discrimination, microaggressions and financial and family pressure. They are also more likely to experience depression, and if they do, their ability to perform as a student is more likely to be impeded.

Furthermore, people from Latinx and African-American communities also face a toxic machismo and masculinity culture in which asking for help is seen as a sign of weakness. As a result, only about a quarter of Black adults will seek mental care compared to 40% of white students. Many college campuses nationwide also lack adequate mental health services including UCLA’s Counseling and Psychological Services, which only has one mental health professional for every 1,150 students.

Clearly, it is hard for many students of color to feel they can succeed at higher level institutions when they have to face more than just their heavy course loads.

Although policies such as affirmative action can make it seem like the college experience is easier for students of color, that argument fails to account for the day-to-day racism and discrimination experienced by students of color.

As African-American scholar Shelby Steele puts it, affirmative action “nurtures a victim-focused identity in blacks” and increases more feelings of disapproval as “the quality that earns (blacks) preferential treatment is an implied inferiority.” In other words, there is a widespread, fallacious belief that students of color are held to a lower standard and that they are granted acceptance only because of the color of their skin or socioeconomic status.

There needs to be more than just policies. The first step to raise awareness of the issues people of color face is through more ethnic studies courses and students of color justice conferences.

We must advocate for college campuses to hire counselors who are experts in dealing with cases of racism or discrimination and can better accommodate students of color. We also must deconstruct the stigma that does not allow students of color to ask for help.

And we must acknowledge that there is strength in seeking comfort and that students of color are not alone in the journey through higher education – that there is power in knowing where and when to ask for help.

Cevallos is a fourth-year human biology and society student.

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