For many people, especially Penn students, imposter syndrome—feelings of self–doubt and equating yourself to a fraud—is not a novel concept. In fact, it’s been recognized by psychologists since 1978. Imposter syndrome can present itself at any time, whether you're in college or well into your career: A review published by the International Journal of Behavioral Science estimates that around 70% of people will deal with it at some point in their lives.
My experience with imposter syndrome began practically as soon as I stepped foot on Penn’s campus. Having taken an economics course before coming to Penn, I was ignorantly confident as I entered my first lecture for the infamous ECON 001 class. I didn't know what to expect, but I convinced myself that the course wouldn’t be that bad. I quickly realized that the econ course I took at my tiny, rural high school wasn’t exactly the adequate preparation I thought it was—apparently economics is a lot more complex than playing a virtual stock market simulation with your classmates.
From daunting recitation sessions with my seemingly all–knowing classmates to cut–throat midterm exams on which I received the worst grades of my life, I quickly began to question my Penn acceptance. I wasn’t alone, though. Many Penn students can attest to experiencing imposter syndrome. However, campus conversations about it often portray it as an individual, psychological burden that many will have to overcome at some point during college. The resulting conclusion is that we should just try to be more confident because these feelings are irrational, but this hurried solution isn’t doing anyone justice. We need to acknowledge the structural influences that promote imposter syndrome at institutions like Penn.
One challenge that many of my friends and I have experienced is inequity in prior education. For first–generation, low–income (FGLI) students like myself, there's an uneven playing field as soon as we get to campus. So many students went to the most advanced high schools in the country and have already taken a diverse set of courses with challenging educators—so it's difficult to feel like we aren't already behind when we start class in the fall. And that feeling of helplessness can't be easily erased.
Describing the impact of my underfunded high school experience on my time at Penn is difficult—to be blunt, it really does suck. 71% of Penn students come from the top 20% of America’s income distribution and have access to exceptional preparation and resources, yet it feels like we're all expected to be equally ready for the challenges Penn presents. And when that assumption proves to be false, and we don’t do as well as our wealthier peers, it can spark feelings of inadequacy.
Though quickly solving this inequity isn’t realistic, recognizing its existence is vital to combatting imposter syndrome. Penn and its professors should acknowledge that an upper–class student with two college–graduate parents will likely have a better experience transitioning to college academics than a first–generation student from a working–class background. COVID–19 has made awareness of socioeconomic factors even more vital to equitable teaching, as FGLI students across the country have struggled with access to the internet, sick family members, increased financial burdens, and unstable living situations.
Penn already has a landing page of resources for professors to learn about inclusive teaching, but the school can go a step further and mandate that all faculty attend trainings on how to teach students from different socioeconomic backgrounds.
But imposter syndrome also extends into the social sphere of college life, making it even more difficult to overcome. With the prominence of social scenes like Greek life, where members regularly spend hundreds of dollars on events like downtowns or Big–Little Week for sororities, being comfortable with your social identity when you can't afford to participate is difficult. It's no secret that these organizations create a sense of class separation on campus, but this directly contributes to imposter syndrome, too. There should be institutionalized methods of helping FGLI students beyond the classroom. One example of this could be financial aid to account for the cost of social activities like Greek life and clubs that require dues.
A message to FGLI students: Just because you're structurally disadvantaged doesn't mean you won’t achieve your version of success. It's important to remember that, but we do need to shift the conversation about imposter syndrome away from mere acknowledgements that a lot of people don’t feel confident in their achievements and abilities. We must start recognizing that there are institutional causes of this phenomenon, and they disproportionately affect low–income and marginalized communities.