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Why are low-income students experiencing imposter syndrome?

Why are some students experiencing imposter syndrome at elite universities? Source: Štefan Štefančík/Unsplash

Imagine being accepted into one of the world’s most elite universities as a low-income student and one year in, you experience the symptoms of imposter syndrome.

Referring to a pattern of behaviour where people doubt their accomplishments, imposter syndrome is not something any student should be facing, especially when they have rightfully earned a slot in a top-tier university programme.

What’s the link between students from low-income backgrounds and imposter syndrome? Source: Gregory Hayes/Unsplash

Shedding the light on systematic shaming, PhD Harvard University candidate Clint Smith spoke of the admissions corruption scandal that swept over global headlines, much to the anger of honest and hard-working students.

“The case, rightfully, has set off a wave of conversations about how the wealthy are able to lie and manipulate their way into the country’s elite colleges and universities. But the scandal also provides an opportunity to interrogate how these universities are set up in ways that systematically amplify and exacerbate the class differences between their students. Students from low-income backgrounds receive daily reminders – interpersonal and institutional, symbolic and structural – that they are the ones who do not belong,” Clint states.

As a response to his article, students submitted letters to contest the issue and illuminate the truth behind the relationship between elite universities and low-income students.

One student in particular, Alex Jovel from Chicago, expressed an enlightening truth within his excerpt, “I’m currently a first year at the University of Chicago, and I have definitely felt my share of imposter syndrome. I come from a low-income family of Latin American immigrants, and at UChicago, it’s so easy to feel like I don’t belong, especially because most people here are white, rich, or both.

“Fortunately, I am now using my struggle with imposter syndrome to learn more about it. I started a research project to study the intensity of imposter syndrome in UChicago undergrads based on demographics such as year of study, gender, income status, etc. Though I still struggle with impostor syndrome today, it’s a good feeling to be using that pain for a good cause.”

University can be a lonely place for students who experience imposter syndrome. Source: Jonathon Rados/Unsplash

Being judged by your peers based on household income or academic background is not an acceptable practice.

It’s an issue that should be treated with serious concern, and you have the right to speak to your university counselling team or faculty members if you feel you have been victimised.

Just like Alex, there are thousands of low-income students who have worked their way to the top of the academic ladder and secured a place in an elite university – the very institutions that tout the values of diversity, inclusivity and internationalism.

So, why are so many students, largely those from lower-income backgrounds, feeling as though they do not deserve a place on their degree programme?

“It’s not fair that students like me feel like we don’t belong. It’s infuriating to know that people think that we only got to where we are because we used our trauma to gain the sympathy of admissions officers. It’s a horrible feeling to think that everything you’ve accomplished was only out of luck. I worked hard to get here and I know that I belong, but this feeling is still present in me every day,” Alex concludes.

The finger of blame could point towards university management, the students’ peers or even the media. There’s no one clear reason as to how the issue became so widespread and insidious. But if we are to ensure fairness and equality across global college admissions, perhaps it’s time for the sector to rethink the entire enrolment process.

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