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Impostor Syndrome, Black College Students and How Administrators Can Help

Operation Varsity Blues, the recent college admissions scandal that has rocked the nation, has raised many debates around ethics in college admissions. While media attention surrounding this scandal has faded somewhat from the headlines, the negative racialized experiences of Black students (e.g., such as seeing nooses and Confederate statues around campus, having one’s status as a student being called into question by police and culturally insensitive fraternity and sorority functions) remain a prevalent yet under-reported issue.

Several psychological studies suggest that these experiences may cause Black students to question the legitimacy of their success and the extent to which they belong on majority-White college campuses. These aspects of self-doubt are key elements of what is known as the impostor syndrome, the tendency of high-achieving individuals to discount and question the validity of their success. Despite objective markers of achievements, individuals who experience impostor syndrome often attribute their accomplishments to factors beyond their control as opposed to their actual intellect, and work extremely hard to refute fears of failure and phoniness.

Donte BernardDonte Bernard

Indeed, impostor syndrome is not specific to the experiences of Black college students. However, recent research suggests that Black students may be more vulnerable to experiences of impostor syndrome, particularly in the context of negative racialized experiences, given their minoritized and marginalized status both within academia and society. It is essential that administrators begin to implement strategies to proactively combat impostor syndrome among Black college students within higher education. Left unchecked, impostor syndrome can lead to a myriad of negative consequences, including social isolation, increased burnout and inappropriate career choices.

To this end, we offer three suggestions for administrators to consider relating to impostor syndrome within areas of mental health, academics and campus experiences.

First, impostor syndrome is important for administrators to address, in part because of the wide range of negative mental health consequences associated with internalized beliefs of being a fraud. For example, among students of color, scholars have found impostor syndrome to positively predict a range of negative mental health outcomes, including symptoms of depression, anxiety and interpersonal sensitivity.

Of course, experiencing impostor syndrome does not mean that an individual will develop mental health problems. However, a growing body of research has documented that impostor syndrome may uniquely and disproportionately influence students of color, especially within the college context. Despite this evidence, significant disparities exist to the extent that students of color pursue and utilize mental health services that may serve to reduce impostor syndrome.

Tracie LoweTracie Lowe

Administrators are encouraged to evaluate how their respective campuses are proactively working to minimize gaps in treating students of color. For example, in addition to working to dispel stigma against Black students seeking counseling, consider what efforts are being made to make students of color familiar with services being offered on campus. Moreover, administrators should reflect on how the demographics of counseling staff reflect the diversity of the student body being served.

Second, while impostor syndrome is important to consider because of its relationship with mental health, administrators should also be aware of its negative academic implications. Impostor syndrome has been shown to decrease academic self-concept and self-esteem among White and Black college students.

Administrators can counteract such feelings by providing educational spaces where Black students can feel they have appropriate levels of challenge and support. High levels of challenge (e.g., encouraging students to take advanced classes or participate in new experiences such as study abroad) and high levels of support (e.g., frequently checking in with students to determine their specific needs) may positively impact student outcomes in terms of persistence and degree completion.

When administrators hold students to high academic standards, they must also be willing to hold themselves accountable for helping students meet those goals. Perhaps relatedly, experiences of impostor syndrome may also lead some Black students to avoid pursuing new intellectual opportunities due to a fear of failure. These experiences are a particularly important consideration for first-generation students who may be more unfamiliar with the collegiate context.

Administrators should consider developing initiatives and workshops to address impostor syndrome among Black students. Such programming can specifically focus on helping students to internalize confidence in their intellectual abilities and help them to understand that instances of failure do not equal fraudulence. Moreover, these workshops can dispel negative societal messages that may lead Black students to believe that they are intellectually inadequate and do not belong.

Third, given research to suggest that a sense of belonging among students of color may positively impact their academic success, it is plausible to assume that fostering an inclusive campus environment may help to reduce impostor syndrome. Across the country, Black college students voice feelings of disconnectedness within universities and have discussed how the explicit and implicit institutionalization of racism may create feelings of isolation and rejection from their White peers and professors and within the colleges they attend. Therefore, it is necessary for administrators to prioritize developing culturally engaging campus environments and establishing a welcoming and supportive climate for diverse student groups.

For example, creating opportunities for students to access holistic support from faculty and staff might eliminate the stress of trying to find resources on their own. Also, administrators can humanize their educational environments by developing meaningful relationships with their students and embodying an ethic of care. Ensuring the well-being of Black students requires paying attention to their unique needs or circumstances and responding appropriately at an individual and institutional level.

Although the attention around national scandals may wane over time, feelings of inadequacy remain an everyday reality among Black students. Indeed, impostor syndrome is something all students experience; however, there are specific experiences and implications that administrators need to consider specifically for Black students and other students of color within higher education.

The strategies presented here are just a few of many that administrators can use to positively influence the mental health, academic self-efficacy and campus experiences of Black students. Engaging in such measures is critical to ensuring their academic success and well-being.

Donte Bernard is a doctoral candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a predoctoral intern at the University of Miami Center for Child Development. Tracie Lowe is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis and a Public Voices Fellow.

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