Imposter Syndrome in Higher Education and its Impact on Marginalized Students

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A couple of days ago, I walked out of my last final exam, having just completed my first semester of law school. In the last few months, I have learned more than I ever have in such a short time. And yet, many sleepless nights, study guides and dried out highlighters later, the classes were not as difficult to overcome as the consistent feeling of not being good enough to be here.

In higher education, students who consistently fall through the cracks of the common narrative — whose values and experiences are not reflected in the general population of their institutions, in the mandatory curriculum, in the campus culture — often feel undeserving of the space they occupy.

The reasons for this rampant imposter syndrome among female-identifying students, students of colour, students with mental illnesses, and all the intersections in between, is far more complex than one article can explain. But, I think, a lot of it boils down to this — what do our institutions teach our marginalized students about themselves?

Do they, in the systemic racism and whiteness embedded in its classrooms, implicitly teach students of colour their identities don’t align with the elite identity of higher education or within the upper echelons of, say, Canadian law firms? Do our institutions, in the systemic sexism and maleness built into its foundation, teach female-identifying students that they need to apologize before asking a question or silence any hint of assertiveness? And if these are the lessons our marginalized students are learning about themselves and the space they hold, knowingly or otherwise, implicitly or explicitly, then what do they leave these walls with other than a prognosis of lifelong imposter syndrome?

In her TED Talk about the imposter syndrome students of colour face, Dena Simmons explains how “our youth of colour pay a profound price when their schooling sends them the message that they must be controlled, that they must leave their identities at home in order to be successful.” Part of deconstructing and decolonizing the systems that higher education is so deeply embedded in, then, is about cultivating spaces where complex, intersectional, marginalized identities are not antithetical to a “higher educational” experience, but synonymous with it.

Imposter syndrome is a losing battle. I, for one, often feel a prickling feeling of doing just under enough, of being just under adequate, regardless of how many mountains I climb. But throughout this sometimes debilitating feeling, I am still teaching myself how to feel deserving of my wins. I do not know if it will disappear, if any amount of dream-chasing will erase that nagging voice, but I do know there is a way, and it starts with questioning our classrooms.

This is about creating places for students to see themselves in the work they create and the material they learn, because there is no shortage of diverse perspectives, only a shortage of our efforts to represent them. There is no shortage of potential, only a shortage of access.

Ramna Safeer is a first year student at Osgoode Hall Law School

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