Despite an increase in first-generation Latinx college students, it can be hard to feel like you belong and deserve to be there. Long story short: You do.

Real-life experiences: a grad student and a high school senior 

A grad student’s perspective

The first time I sat in one of the leather chairs of a library at my university since turning 21—an odd age to turn since you can’t deny being a “real” adult anymore like at 18—I thought back on all the other places I’ve sat. As a young child, it was my mother’s lap, as a student it was and still is my desk chair, as a teacher’s aide during undergrad it was tiny kid chairs, and as an artist, it was sometimes the floor. With this article I hope to pass along any type of message about the chaotic space between the parts of ourselves we can’t yet claim and the parts we can’t afford to forget.

Sitting in the libraries, classrooms, and other spaces at my university, which happens to be in my home city, there were many moments where I felt out of place. I’m sure it happens to many other students, but when you’re a first-generation Latina student from a low-income, immigrant family you feel it even more. I’m a graduate student now and despite being aware that I have worked hard to be in this position, when you’re only one of a handful of Latinx students in your courses, it still feels weird. Did I just get lucky? Do I deserve to be here?

A high school senior‘s perspective

Isa (pseudonym) is a high school senior at the current writing of this article. She has recently been accepted into an Ivy League school with a full 4-year scholarship, an incredible feat for anyone. But Isa is a low-income Guatemalan-Mexican-American first-generation female student who has been raised by a single mother and is from a school district still challenged by absenteeism and low (but increasing) graduation rates. This is an incredible feat for her. But as she sees her peers being unable to get the same opportunities—struggling to get financial aid, having difficulty with the college application process, not knowing what or how to do it—she sometimes doubts her hard work and wonders. Did she just get lucky? Does she deserve to be here?

First gen college students: this article is for you

All across the country, those still in high school, those who are thinking about applying for college, and those who have applied and are waiting for decisions, are experiencing stressful processes. But for Latinx students who will be first-generation college students and/or are children of immigrant parents, these processes often come with an entirely different range of emotions, challenges, and barriers. Just as I (the author) and Isa have felt, one of those experiences is that which encompasses feelings of inadequacy, insecurity, guilt, and doubt. So if you have or are experiencing something like this, regardless of your current situation, this article is meant for you and you deserve to feel seen, so I encourage you to keep reading. 

Do you experience imposter syndrome? 

These feelings and experiences as described actually do belong to a concept experienced by many, many people and that has been studied and discussed in academic and psychological spaces. Imposter syndrome is a term that encompasses those internal feelings of doubt, insecurity, fear, guilt, and anxiety that you might feel despite being hardworking and achieving great things. Imposter syndrome involves that sense of not being good enough despite being good at many things, wondering if you’re a phony, being scared to ask others for help because they’ll think less of you, and other things in-between and around. 

Your “As-If” Personality

Analytical psychologists, like Susan E. Schwartz however, may also discuss the “‘As-If’ personality” when discussing this phenomenon. In her recent book, Imposter Syndrome and The ‘As-If’ Personality in Analytical Psychology: The Fragility of Self  by Schwartz (2023), imposter syndrome/the ‘As-If’ Schwartz defines personality by the question: “Who am I, really?”

This million-dollar question can be difficult to answer at first with anything other than a name, demographic characteristics, or hobbies. Who you are as a person is much more than that. It’s a culmination of experiences, values, beliefs, likes/dislikes, what you chose to write about in that essay when given the opportunity, what made you choose to read this article. 

Although Schwartz (2023) is a psychology-oriented text, I invite you to reflect on the following excerpt and I hope it strikes you as much as it did me:

“The ‘as-if’ person has yet to travel the road inward, even when faced with the truths they know unconsciously, including discontent and discontinuity. The courage it takes is there but has yet to be recognised and accessed. The ‘as-if’ person cannot stop  long enough to do so. They need to cover the real and just go on  because it hurts too much. At some point, however, life catches up and they must address issues formerly denied. The process will evolve out of the fog of denial into the experience of presence. This is a journey inwards to evolve outwards.” (p. 8)

Why should you be aware of imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome can impact a person in many ways. For me, guilt caused me to wonder if I deserved all the opportunities I received or if I was taking away from others. In Isa, it is primarily insecurity in her own abilities that causes her to wonder if she has achieved her scholarship because she worked hard or if she just got lucky. For you, it might be similar, but it also might be much different, or even a combination. 

The article “Being a Person of Color in This Institution is Exhausting: Defining and Optimizing the Learning Climate to Support Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the University of Washington School of Public Health” by Gwayi-Chore et al. (2021) observed community definitions of climate and the shared living experiences. Their participants were 64 faculty, staff, and students who identified with a variety of characteristics including being Persons of Color, women, and LGBTQIA. Although this is a great read in its entirety, one thing I would like to point out is that many of the participants’ negative experiences were related to these same characteristics. 

Regardless of their role at the university, POC generally felt excluded or discriminated against in “White-centered” environments so much that they repeatedly experienced imposter syndrome or other effects like extreme stress and leaving their programs. 

Imposter syndrome isn’t a “You” problem

Despite its name however, imposter syndrome does not qualify as a medical condition that one must be “cured” from. It doesn’t mean that you are any less because you experience it or that there’s something wrong with you. 

Imposter syndrome typically does not just come out of nowhere or because of something you’ve done. It’s often the result of external factors, systems, processes, and sometimes even people that, whether intentionally or not, make you feel like you don’t belong. As Mullangi & Jagsi (2019) put it, “Imposter syndrome is but a symptom; inequity is the disease.”

Coping with feelings of inadequacy: “I can do this.” 

So, how can you, as a first-generation college student, cope with this? 

Be a part of structural change

Mullangi & Jagsi (2019) consider this more of a structural issue than an individual one, and they actually suggest challenging the problem at the organizational level. They suggest that leaders should transform culture and policy.

You may not (yet) be able to affect change at the larger levels but you can definitely occupy spaces that will hear and value your suggestions on making more equitable processes for you. For me, this includes seeking out internships and jobs that allow me to contribute to diversity, inclusion, equity, and accessibility initiatives and change. But for you, it may include writing a letter to a professor or administrator on how they can promote a more inclusive learning environment or joining student organizations and clubs that promote change in areas you believe need it. Even through your mobile devices, following and supporting social media accounts that are already doing the work can promote change among a greater group of people and make a lasting impact.  

Advocate for yourself and others

You can advocate for yourself, and—when you’re ready—for others too. This can range from not letting others speak over you, accepting a compliment when it’s given, or acknowledging that you did do a great job, even if no one else is saying it to you. 

Seek connection, mentorship, or coaching

Seeking role models, mentors, and sponsors that share your experiences is also another great way of fostering connection, knowing that you are not alone, receiving guidance and advice, and even gaining opportunities relevant to your interests. 

In their study, Zanchetta et al. (2020) find that coaching is an effective way to sustainably reduce scores of Imposter Syndrome, which supports that idea of building connections with others. Those who received coaching not only had more knowledge about their careers of interest, but they also showed an increase in goal attainment, career exploration, career striving, career decision-making skills, and motivation to lead. When you have someone that has been in a similar situation as you to look up to and rely on, you naturally start believing that you, too, can become someone someone else will later look up to and rely on. You can do it too

And I understand that this may not be the easiest thing to initiate. I, myself, often struggled with being the first to start a conversation with others at networking events, classes, etc. But being in these spaces is a feat in itself. So don’t stress it, take it easy and slow, and the right people will also present themselves to you.  

Forget imposter syndrome – you and I deserve this

So, in conclusion…imposter syndrome is that little annoying voice that tries to bring you down.

You DO have the power, though, to shut it down and out. Because you do belong at university, in that classroom, in that chair. You worked hard and you will continue to do so. Regardless of whether others see it or believe it, you have done it. And whatever results out of that hard work, talent, intelligence, and motivation, you deserve it.

We all deserve the good things that happen to us. All that there is to do is to believe it.