This story originally appeared on Houston Public Media.
Admission to a top tier university sounds like a golden ticket to the rest of a student’s life. But the transition to elite colleges can be difficult, especially for students from low-income homes and who are the first in their families to attend college.
Take Jennifer Gray and Ambar Muñoz. They are both freshmen in college. Gray is at Brandeis University in Boston and Muñoz is at Penn.
Even though they’re at different campuses, they face the same unsettling feelings.
“We would have, like, tests and we would do it in groups and I’d always tell myself, well I made this grade because I got a chance to work with so-so, like, this wasn’t my own,” Gray said.
“I really struggled throughout the whole class, just because I felt like I was behind everyone else, and I got an A in the class, and, of course, I was very happy, but I felt like I didn’t deserve it,” Muñoz recounted.
Madeleine Uraih jumped in the conversation. She’s at Johns Hopkins University.
“I feel like until I can do it on my own, I haven’t really earned it. But I don’t think I can do it on my own, so you’re just kind of stuck,” she said.
These young women were all top graduates from the Houston Independent School District. Their experience of frustration and self-doubt has a name.
Psychologists call it impostor syndrome. It’s more than a lack of confidence. It occurs among high-achievers who can’t internalize or accept their success. People of color often experience it more than others.
And educators noticed it happening with talented Houston students as they started college.
“We hear them say things like, ‘I don’t know if I deserve to be here. They must have made a mistake. I don’t feel as prepared either emotionally, socially, socio-economically for the experience that I’m having,” said Felicia Martin, program director with EMERGE. It started with the mission to connect high-achieving, low-income students to top tier colleges. Those students are often missed during the admissions process, or never apply to schools even though they have the talent and grades to get in.
Now EMERGE also wants to make sure its students thrive on campus, and that self-doubt doesn’t derail their future.
“We want them to be able to understand that they do belong in these environments, that this is something that they will continue to experience in terms of their career paths, but that we are perfectly equipped and that we’re worthy of success and that we are worthy of these opportunities to have a top notch education,” Martin said.
Cue this recent winter break session for dozens of EMERGE students.
It was part therapy, part pep-talk. And it introduced them to professionals who’ve faced that impostor syndrome and conquered it, like Eldridge Gilbert.
He’s an Ivy League graduate and principal at YES Prep North Forest.
He told the students how in high school he often was the only black male in his honors classes. He wanted a more diverse experience in college.
But when he arrived at Brown University, he quickly realized the students were mostly white and from wealthy families. He started to feel like he didn’t belong.
Then something changed when he went to a lecture about how the founders of Brown profited from the slave trade.
“And I remember being like, ‘Well, if anybody belongs in here, I do!’” Gilbert recounted. “Because I’m the descendant of slaves and I’m proud of it, like, that is part of my heritage, and if anybody should have a space at this university, it is somebody who comes from lineage of people, of the backs of people who they built the university from.”
Gilbert offered other ways to combat those impostor feelings:
-Ask for help when you need it;
-Don’t compare yourself to others; and
-Own your success.
“Your seat is your seat. You earned it, you worked hard and you are going to graduate from your university because you are going to continue to work hard. You are among the best of the best that Houston has to offer,” he said.
Afterwards, students left the session with very different feelings.
“Now it’s all resonating with me and now I understand how to combat some of these issues and to be a proud person who deserves to be in her seat,” Gray said.
“I realize, ‘Wow, I should be more motivated now to work even harder,” Muñoz said.
Uraih latched onto an idea mentioned in the session as the “Michael Jordan” principal.
“You may not be great at everything, but you are great at something,” she said. “I’m amazing at this thing, and I need to own that I’m great at this and keep working at it so I can be even better.”
They have ambitions to study public health, cognitive science and neuroscience.
For more information about EMERGE, visit their website.