(Artwork by Diego Maglione, @zziego on Instagram)

Education

Column: Inquiries into intersectionality and impostor syndrome

Impostor syndrome is fluid, it drowns. It is like an invisibility cloak that hides feelings of shame and estrangement from the public eye. Impostor syndrome is a second shadow that follows you everywhere. For many students like myself, impostor syndrome is the feeling as if we’re a fraud, and undeserving of all of our accomplishments.…
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/k9ren/" target="_self">Karen Rodriguez</a>

Karen Rodriguez

May 21, 2021

Impostor syndrome is fluid, it drowns. It is like an invisibility cloak that hides feelings of shame and estrangement from the public eye. Impostor syndrome is a second shadow that follows you everywhere.

For many students like myself, impostor syndrome is the feeling as if we’re a fraud, and undeserving of all of our accomplishments. And one thing about impostor syndrome is that it doesn’t discriminate. According to a 2011 article by the International Journal of Behavioral Science, about 70% of people have impostor syndrome, regardless of level of success.

However, there are certain factors that can increment one’s chances of feeling impostor syndrome, including our family dynamics. The article also states that within our family, the way we compare ourselves to other family members, the way our family conveys the importance of success without emphasizing the level of effort, and the way there is a lack of positive reinforcement can all enhance how badly impostor syndrome affects us.

There is a demographic which overwhelmingly has issues within these family dynamics and consequently feels impostor syndrome at much higher rates. These are first-generation and low-income students, or FGLI for short. From having immigrant parents or immigrating to the United States to being the first to attend college in our families with little to no guidance, students like us tend to suffer from feelings of self-doubt and depression from impostor syndrome.

Below are the short stories written by students around the country who have shared their feelings and experiences with impostor syndrome — the heartache, the healing, and most importantly — the growth.

 



Abrar Yaser – Pomona ‘25

Imposter Syndrome has been a thing I’ve experienced ever since I stepped foot in America! As someone from the global south whose only interaction with America was through his American cousins who were idolized in his family, I thought living in America (and the imperial core as a whole) is a dream only the selected few can fulfill. This was the start of my imposter syndrome.

In the global south, no wonder how big of a hand the United States has in the destruction of our communities, the country is revered by the masses. To us, living in America meant living away from the imperfect infrastructure & pollution of our own countries. Unfortunately, a modern teenager like me had fallen prey to those false thoughts too.

I remember my first day at school! It was very different from school in Bangladesh — we didn’t have air conditioning, wifi, lunch, or sports. It was a whole new experience for me.

My first class during freshman year was freshman P.E. Mind you, we didn’t even have a field to ourselves in densely populated Dhaka, so the fact that I could just run around my school’s fieldhouse was crazy to me.

I think that’s when I realized I was very different from the American kids. I never had the privilege of being athletic, although it’s not really a privilege. I feel like all kids around the world deserve a field to at least play sports during their adolescence.

Nevertheless, that is when my imposter syndrome started to kick in. I was one of the “selected few” to be bestowed upon the opportunity to live in the heaven on earth known as America, and I was just wasting it like that. I had never watched a single football game in my life and nobody knew what cricket was.

Nobody knew what Bengali games like haadudu were! I didn’t know what the heck the kids were talking about when they asked me if I had watched yesterday’s game, or if I had watched the half-time show. Seriously, I thought football was played with the foot. Why the heck is football called soccer here?

Nevertheless, as I moved on with my life trying to assimilate into this American identity, I realized it would take me several years to say the least. I prided myself over knowing English, over being a “good immigrant.” I should have been able to fit right in, why the heck would I have imposter syndrome?

Alas, I didn’t realize people would not understand my English at all. My thick South Asian accent had only been showcased in American media as a gross stereotype. I went to a school with mostly South Asians, yet being a South Asian immigrant was gross; My accent was tacky, I was a fob, and the kids who looked like me acted like white people.

My 16-year-old self was so perplexed. I think this is when my imposter syndrome worsened. I felt like I really didn’t deserve to be in the honors and AP classes I had been enrolled in, and unfortunately, that was made very clear by my xenophobic teachers too — they just simply couldn’t grasp the idea that I was good at English, even.

Though I spoke in an ambiguous accent, as I went on with high school I tried my best to sound like an American, dress like an American, and eat like an American. I could never let anyone know I was an imposter. One would say there’s no specific American identity, but ask any immigrant and they will tell you the opposite.

The epitome of the American experience was getting into college. I really wanted to prove myself to my American classmates, that even a kid with no expertise in what it means to be from this country can go to one of the best institutions in this country. Now that I have achieved this dream, the thirst really isn’t quenched.

I still suffer from imposter syndrome. I still want to cry whenever I mispronounce a word or someone gets to know that I’m not American and will never be one. No matter what I do, I will always be an imposter in a land that caters to cishet white people.

I think as an FGLI student I have to come to terms with that fact, especially since I’m preparing myself to go to a PWI where only the purest of the Americans (analogy for rich white people) can go! At the end of the day, I feel like the American identity has been formed to uphold the institutional power of white people, and POC who do not conform to the system often feel like imposters.





Daniel Fonseca, Franklin Academy High School – Harvey Mudd ‘25

I’m Daniel A. Fonseca, a senior at Franklin Academy High School in Southwest Ranches, Florida. I was admitted into the class of 2025 at Harvey Mudd College.

As a traditionally underrepresented ethnic minority, first-generation college student, and child of a single parent I can definitely say my journey throughout high school wasn’t typical. In a school severely lacking funding toward its academic and extracurricular departments, the student body was quite demotivated and didn’t have the ambition to excel at the level that’s required to be admitted into elite colleges.

However, I didn’t have that choice. Coming to the United States, my family made sacrifices to abandon their lives in Venezuela for me to have the opportunity to attend high school in America. This pressure loomed over me to make my mother proud, who’s worked nights to provide for me in the absence of my father.

On the outside, my peers thought of me as extremely dedicated to academics and my passions. To be frank, I felt alone in that pursuit towards excelling. I couldn’t speak to anyone on what it was like to spend hours on a club or an assignment, just to walk home to attend a community college class.

Many times I was told by my peers that I’m a “try-hard overreacting snob” at school, but in reality, I was just eager to gain opportunities that I couldn’t given the current state of my school to meet the bare requirements to apply to elite colleges. These colleges could give me the chance to completely change the trajectory of my family’s finances in the future. I’m glad I accomplished just that, but many times throughout the process I questioned myself if it was even worth it. I’m still asking myself that even after being admitted.

Speaking with other admitted students, I’m introduced to a diverse plethora of backgrounds. However, I realize that I still can’t relate to the majority of my peers. This is largely due to how severely uncommon it is for low-income students to be admitted at some elite institutions. As of writing this, I’ve only met one low-income student in my class.

I can’t contribute to my peers’ conversations on what vacations they went on, our favorite three-course meals to cook are, or even our favorite AP STEM subjects. I didn’t have the same academic opportunities as they did, and it only propelled my impostor syndrome. Although I’m proud of my achievements, in comparison to others within my class they seem very lackluster.

I found out a couple of weeks ago high schoolers can even have internships through one of my peers since they spent a summer interning at a company. It’s truly changed my perspective on the entire college admissions process and just how disadvantaged low-income, first-generation, Black and POC communities are.

Not only that, but I believe there’s an intersection within a cultural practice to not even pursue higher education in some of these communities. For example, when I got into Harvey Mudd, I ran to my mother in excitement, but I was met with a disdained response. She was disappointed in me for not even considering but committing to an out-of-state university. The expectation was always to stay home while working and attending community college.

This feeling of having four years of relentless work being questioned existed not only at school but within my own home too. Many others share that same sentiment, and for some, it keeps them from reaching milestones they deserve to earn. Impostor syndrome is a real thing, and it’s rooted in not just academics but within our own culture too.

 




Alexis, Maui High School – Stanford ‘25

As a first-generation low-income student striving high in the journey towards my future, impostor syndrome was nothing but a hindrance to my mindset. Having no academic role models in my family and having to look at my peers instead, I couldn’t help but wonder — Am I meant to be here?

From year to year, comparison after comparison, how I saw myself, my academic skill, and my ability to reach my goals was deeply damaged. This, of course, as with a lot of other FLI students like me, led to a need to compensate and prove that I was enough and worthy of what I was aiming for. The compensation as a result of the impostor syndrome I experienced my whole high school career, and maybe even all of my time in school, was detrimental to my mental health, to say the least.

After a tough journey, finally, at the first step in ensuring that I have the future I dream of, I’ve learned that nobody got me where I am today except for myself. Because of my hard work and diligence, I can say that I deserve everything good that has come my way. To all other FLI students currently in their expedition towards the future they desire, I offer one statement: YOU ARE ENOUGH AND YOU DESERVE ANYTHING YOU WORK TOWARD!

 


 

Muna – Columbia ’25

Imposter syndrome hits incredibly close to home. Throughout high school, I dedicated my time to working diligently, with the goal of building a better future for myself and my family. My parents immigrated to the U.S. as refugees, and their perspective on education was simple: focus on your studies and you can reach the stars.

Fortunately, due to my educational successes (and a bit of luck!), I received a full-ride scholarship to attend Columbia University, one of the top schools in the nation. Despite the hard work that went into me getting in, I couldn’t help but struggle with the thought that I didn’t deserve my successes. I felt like I was somehow less worthy of my achievements due to external factors such as my background: I identify as a Black Muslim girl.

Imposter syndrome is especially toxic when levied against minorities, especially those who live at the intersection of several marginalized identities. Claims of affirmative action and institutionally-mandated race quotas ruin the joy that students of color feel when thinking about their educational futures. 

A kid in one of my classes claimed a few weeks ago that the only reason why he didn’t get into our local state school was because of his race — he is white. To reduce college admissions successes of students of color to merely their race is diminishing and demoralizing.

No one student is inherently less deserving to go to a school because of their race; if anything, those who rise above the systemic oppression and brutal violence that U.S. hegemony perpetuates are inherently more deserving of their successes than that of their peers who had everything handed to them in their lives

Imposter syndrome is chronic, demoralizing, and debilitating. I wish I had the solution to getting rid of these thoughts of worthlessness, but I don’t. Instead, I try to remind myself that no matter what, I am worthy of my successes and that no amount of self-doubt will make my achievements less impressive.

 




My story

I almost didn’t apply to Stanford. And if I had not, I fear that I would have been one of the most “underwhelming” people within my acquaintances. But I did, and it was one of the happiest, electrifying, and terrifying days of my life. I immediately yelled out to my family in a mix of Spanish and sobs, “Me aceptarón!” And while they were confused as to what the school even was, they were seemingly happy nonetheless.

This euphoria lasted for a good few minutes, soon replaced by fear and paranoia. I immediately thought “I’m not going” and “it has to be a mistake.” I could not stop shaking the rest of the night and found it difficult to answer the hundreds of congratulation texts I was getting.

Eventually, I developed the guts to convince myself I would go to Stanford. Yet, this confidence diminished as I found myself struggling in school. I found it hard to focus and retain information long-term. I felt anxious and overwhelmed by how much self-studying I did in my free time. This feeling seemed to get worse as I began to meet my Stanford classmates, who attended some of the best schools in the country and had countless extracurricular activities and AP classes to add to their expertise in a well-funded high school experience.

This was not a feeling of jealousy but rather embarrassment and shame on my part — if these kids had all of these accomplishments on their belt, what was I doing here? I had gone to a title one school, which had a mere four APs and a limited number of extracurriculars. I learned English at age seven and didn’t continue developing my native Spanish tongue until my freshman year of high school. I didn’t know some of the words they spoke in English, and I didn’t feel the confidence to speak the Spanish I knew with my friends who lived in Latin America for over a decade.

Eventually, I got sick of running away from the shame I felt and confronted it like a spearhead. I asked myself, “what are you so afraid of?” and found that it was rather easy to answer this question! I feared going to arguably the best university in the United States for nothing. Leaving behind my family and loved ones to unknown territory. To sit in a lecture hall and not know a thing. To not reap what I sowed.

To soothe my spirits, I read plenty of articles like this one, or ones that told me to meditate or journal. And while there is no definite answer or solution to impostor syndrome that is one-sized, there are some things that helped me.

 


The adapting and the growth

When I talk to people about impostor syndrome, whether it be my own experiences or a “general” experience, I always bring up how people and plants are more alike than different. Much like a plant suffering from stress and shock from being repotted, FGLI students can feel these exact same things due to impostor syndrome. But, this isn’t the end all be all, and there are many things that can be done to lessen the effects on our mental health. Here’s what I did.

Impostor syndrome tends to come with a lot of self-criticisms, and rather than thinking about what I lacked, I thought about my pessimistic thoughts on myself and my capabilities. I put other people in my shoes and saw them from my point of view.

If I had seen some other kid from a low-income area with immigrant parents get into an elite university would I doubt their abilities? No! Absolutely not! On the contrary, I would applaud them, and look at them in awe that they defied the odds put against them by American society.

This made me feel much better because I would never see anyone achieving such great things as anything other than deserving, and I am gradually learning to see myself in this way as well.

Self-criticism can be terrifying, but when I observed it rather than engaged with it, it ultimately led to the beginning of giving myself credit for my accomplishments.

If you’ve ever had a chance to talk to someone older than you that has suffered from Impostor Syndrome, here’s how the conversation typically goes: “Find your community!” And as corny as it sounds, finding a community who share the same struggles I do has been key to dealing with self-doubt.

Many of my greatest friends today are fellow FGLI students. We talk about our struggles, cry about them, laugh about them, and then finally get it together and work it out. And while we are so different from one another, our intersectionality within our group being minorities, low-income, and coming from families of immigrants is special. We as people are more alike than different emotionally.

When being repotted, plants tend to wilt and lose leaves and petals, which is much like a student who has impostor syndrome that seems to lose parts of themselves as well. However, plants often get better with the right care: pampering, vitamins, and most importantly, making room for growth.

So now, if there is anything I could say to someone suffering from impostor syndrome, I would say to take the risk, to nosedive, to make mistakes, to encourage others as they encourage you, and most importantly to grow and engage in your growth.

 


 

This is one of (if not) my last pieces of writing I will create as a high schooler! I just wanted to briefly thank all of my friends, especially those who I met through Questbridge, who have shared these touching stories with me. Abrar, Daniel, Alexis, Muna … you are all amazing!

In particular, I would like to thank Brianna Gallardo, who will be attending Northwestern University this fall, and Angelina Rios-Gallindo, who will be attending Brown University this fall. Their stories and ideas have greatly inspired me to write this piece!