During a discussion about conditioning, one of my Introduction to Psychology students asked if conditioning can help explain why students feel so much anxiety when the walk onto campus. The question caught me off guard. It lead to a discussion that went far beyond conditioning. Inspired by Dr. Dena Simmons’ TED Ed talk, my students and I talked about imposter syndrome in higher education.
My new home, Heritage University, is within the Yakama Nation community, and largely caters to Native and Latinx students. Focusing on imposter syndrome and the feeling of social isolation for students of color in higher education, Simmon’s talk resonated with many of students. But Simmon’s message doesn’t just apply to those working with underserved communities. In fact, I think it is even more relevant for campuses that are less diverse. When faced with the unfamiliar, first generation and minority students may struggle to connect with their peers and instructors. Without a sense of community and support, it can be difficult to persevere through college’s many challenges.
Many of us are well aware of the issue of degree completion for minority groups. According to a 2018 report by the National Clearinghouse, degree completion rates over a six-year period were lowest for Black (30.7%), Hispanic (39.1%), and Native (44.7%) students. Similarly, these groups also had the highest percentage of students who were no longer enrolled by the end of the six-year period (42.8% of Black students, 33.0% of Hispanic students, and 40.9% of Native students). This also doesn’t exclusively apply to college institutions. Hispanic, Native, and Black students had the highest high school dropout rates, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
There are innumerable factors that contribute to degree completion rates. But as my student pointed out, feelings of anxiety could be at least one contributing factor. In a sample of junior college students, racial-ethnic minority groups had higher rates of self-reported social anxiety, particularly when comparing Hispanic students to White students (Lesure-Lester, King, 2005). In another study, high rates of minority status stress (stress specific to minority students, such as discrimination) and imposter feelings was related to poor mental health scores among Black college students (McClain, et al., 2016).
Interestingly, the McClain and colleagues (2016) also demonstrated that ethnic identity was positively correlated with mental health, such that a stronger ethnic identity predicted better mental health. As Simmons states in her talk, if we center our “instruction on the lives, histories, and identities” of our students, it will help them “preserve their ties with their families, homes, and communities” while also encouraging their academic success.
Beyond racial and ethnic diversity, Simmon’s talk is relevant to any student who feels like they don’t belong or fit in. There are a number of reasons why students can feel ostracized, such as if they are a person with a disability, or started (or restarted) college later in life. All campus have students that fit in that criteria in some way or another.
We can support our diverse student populations in a number of ways. For example, we can integrate relevant current events into our lectures, or diversifying our reading list by including more authors that are women and/or people of color. Consider adapting course policies to avoid penalizing students that work or family obligations (or both!). Heritage University has a series of videos that talk about how we work to support our first generation students in the classroom. You can also learn more about how to combat imposter syndrome through more TED Ed talks.
Regardless of where our students are coming from, it is important that we as instructors create an inclusive space to support everyone. So go to your classrooms and remind your students that they are all worthy and they all deserve to be there.
By Karly Schleicher