UT professor says impostor syndrome burdens students on campus, affects mental health

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Photo Credit: Stephanie Sonik | Daily Texan Staff

College students from underrepresented communities often feel burdened with feelings of not belonging, said the director of UT’s Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis on the Jan. 27 episode of the National Public Radio podcast “The Academic Minute.” 

Impostor syndrome, or impostor phenomenon, is a psychological feeling that causes a person to doubt their accomplishments and fear being exposed as a “fraud” in their community, according to the American Psychological Association. Kevin Cokley, a professor in the department of educational psychology, described impostor syndrome as a sense of “intellectual phoniness.”

“It’s basically this idea that people who are very competent and accomplished and smart nevertheless feel like they are frauds,” said Cokley. “They feel like in spite of their achievements and their competence, they have managed to fool people into thinking they are more intelligent and accomplished than they believe themselves to actually be.”

Cokley said these feelings are especially high among students during final exams because of the sense of competition on campus.

“There’s something about impostor syndrome that works or applies to everybody to some extent,” said Richard Reddick, an associate dean for equity, community engagement and outreach in the College of Education. “If you belong to a marginalized identity group, it’s something that you probably feel very astutely and constantly.”

Reddick said the feelings of impostor phenomenon greatly affect first-generation students and those who come from minority backgrounds because they have to work harder than other students to prove themselves and are not as well represented in their field.

“Knowing that these perceptions exist about (minorities having unequal opportunities) can also heighten feelings of being an impostor among students of color,” Cokley said. 

Undergraduate studies freshman Eva Perez said these feelings are very common among students but are not often discussed.

“I feel out of place, not knowing what I’m really doing here,” Perez said. “It would be easier to deal with the feelings we’re feeling if we knew that other people had them, too, and we could all help each other cope with them.” 

Perez, who is a first-generation college student, said she feels like everyone else knows what they are doing at UT, and she cannot relate to that. 

“Especially if you’re (first-generation), you’re going to struggle way more,” Perez said. “You’re not gonna have the tips and tricks and advice or the well-structured lifestyle that you’re supposed to have. When you’re not prepared for that and you get (to college), it just feels like everyone’s out to get you.” 

 

Cokley said these feelings can increase levels of depression and anxiety.

“(Students) find themselves in an environment where there are a lot of people who are smart and highly accomplished, and it may end up causing these students to doubt themselves or question whether they really belong there,” Cokley said. 

Faculty need to constantly reaffirm students that they deserve to be at the University and that they have the capacity to do well, Cokley said.

“Faculty perhaps take for granted how much that means to students to hear (that they belong) from their faculty and staff,” Cokley said.