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Top Tips for Student of Color Success: How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is very real and disproportionally affects students of color. Here's a look at what it is and effective ways to combat these feelings.

Have you ever lacked confidence in your abilities? Are you too hard on yourself? Do you have a lot of self-doubt? If you answered yes to any of these questions, your feelings are completely normal—and valid. What you’re likely experiencing is imposter syndrome. Many US college students experience imposter syndrome, but students of color experiencing racial discrimination, microaggressions, and underrepresentation exhibit imposter syndrome more often than White students. Luckily, there are plenty of ways students can combat these feelings. Let’s dive into this phenomenon and ways students of color can manage and lessen their doubts.

What is imposter syndrome?

The term “imposter syndrome” was coined by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. It describes the pervasive, crippling feeling that involves believing your accomplishments are due to luck rather than skill or the belief that you’re undeserving of your achievements and accolades. This creates feelings of self-doubt where a person feels like they’re faking it or don’t belong in social spaces, and it’s often experienced by minority groups like women and people of color.

A Black student who’s pursuing a Chemistry degree may feel they’re undeserving of their place in college or doubt their academic abilities due to the lack of representation of Black people in STEM fields. This feeling can also be intensified for students who have multiple intersecting identities. For example, a Black female student experiences both racism and gender discrimination, which can worsen her feelings of being an imposter in predominately White male spaces. Imposter syndrome can lead to increased anxiety, depression, and fear—sometimes even leading to students dropping out of college.

Related: Why TRIO Programs Are Important for Student Growth and Success

How to manage imposter syndrome

Many people of color are socialized to believe they must work twice as hard to get half as far in comparison to their White peers. This has led many students to believe they must constantly strive for perfection and their work must be exemplary even in the face of systemic racism. Anything less than perfection typically leads to feelings of guilt and shame. These feelings are common, and it’s important to know you’re not alone. Here are some strategies to manage imposter syndrome and find your confidence.

Recognize that imposter syndrome isn’t your fault

Imposter syndrome puts the blame on individuals without acknowledging the historical and cultural contexts critical to how it manifests. This leads many students of color to feel as if they need to fix something within themselves, as opposed to fixing the environment. Self-doubt is exacerbated by bias. When you’re made to feel that you don’t belong in predominantly White spaces, it leads to a lack of self-confidence. For instance, studies show there’s often an inherent bias about "Black-sounding" names in comparison to “traditionally White” names. People with Black-sounding names are perceived to be less smart and capable, which will impact how they are treated as well as their social and economic success.

Students of color on predominantly White campuses report feeling like a token—constantly pressured to be a representative of their race—and in classes, they often encounter curricula that doesn’t center their experiences and history. This constant exclusion in higher education leads young people to believe they don’t matter. As a student of color, it’s important to be cognizant of the impact of institutional racism and its role in imposter syndrome.

Find inspirational role models

Role models help clarify a student’s vision and goals while providing inspiration to achieve  their aspirations. In fact, studies have shown that students are more likely to succeed when they share the same race or ethnicity as their teacher. This helps build confidence and motivation as students feel assured their barriers and struggles will be understood by someone who shares their life experiences. Serena Williams, widely known as one of the greatest tennis players of all time, is a role model for many young athletic women of color. Young athletes of color aspiring to compete on a global level look up to Serena’s tenacity, perseverance, and work ethnic as well as her ability to be her authentic self on and off the court. Many young athletes emulate her and thus feel more confident in their own abilities. But your role models don’t have to be celebrities; they can be teachers, mentors, advisors, supervisors, or peers. Take an assessment of who you admire in your life and why. Ask mentors in your life how they overcame self-doubt and imposter syndrome. Use these role models as a blueprint for achieving your goals and building your confidence.

Related: How Students Can Find Supportive Mentors in College

Connect with other students of color

Imposter syndrome is a shared experience by many students of color, so it’s important to know you don’t have to feel isolated. Social networks have been found to improve performance and build confidence. On many college campuses, there are organizations and clubs for students of color like Black Student Union or Hispanic Student Association. These groups are intended to provide a safe space for minorities to connect and seek respite from the daily trauma and microaggressions they experience on predominantly White campuses. Imposter syndrome can have a serious impact on your mental health, and talking about it with others who understand not only creates a shared experience but also provides you with the emotional and psychological support you need to combat it.

Build your confidence

Do you keep track of your accomplishments? Do you have a brag book? While you may have feelings of imposter syndrome, there are also times where you have felt extreme confidence. Keep a journal of all your successes and flourishing skills and abilities—no matter how large or small. Save your letters of recommendation and job performance reviews. Track your progress as you learn a new skill you’re excited about. Even write down the compliments people give you on a day-to-day basis. When you’re feeling like an imposter, revisit your brag book to build your confidence and remind yourself of all the great things about you.

Related: 12 Tips and Tricks to Build Confidence in High School

Even the most successful people experience imposter syndrome, and you may experience these feelings of self-doubt anytime you’re working to achieve your goals as a student of color. But it’s important to not internalize these beliefs. Be sure to use these strategies to conquer imposter syndrome and remember what an amazing and talented person you really are.

One way to avoid imposter syndrome is by attending an HBCU. Check out our blog on 5 Great Reasons to Consider Attending an HBCU to learn why!

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