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College is one of the few times in life when many of us live, eat and study in our workspaces; the competitive environment that is fostered on many college campuses can make for a difficult adjustment for first-year students. A relatively recent addition to common discourses surrounding this transition has been Impostor Syndrome — which affects approximately 70% of people. Individuals with Impostor Syndrome might feel that they are less qualified than their peers, they often doubt their intelligence and their sense of belonging in intellectual settings. That said, academic preparation is not the only factor with which students struggle upon starting and changing schools. Many people must adjust to being away from their families, living in a new landscape, or supporting themselves financially, but for students of color, there is often additional pressure from what is called Minority-Status Stress.
Most common in African-American students, Minority-Status Stress results from the perception of racism, most commonly in the form of microagressions, defined as “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership.” Examples range from intentional discriminatory acts to more subtle, unintended comments that invalidate the experiences, character, appearance or history of a minority. The resulting status-stress of perceived racism can make students feel unwelcome, excluded, and undeserving of the degree they are pursuing. This can manifest in students hiding their cultural identities and practices and conforming to white cultural norms in academic spaces, or feeling the need to consistently prove themselves to their peers and professors.
The following are some tips for anyone struggling with Minority-Status Stress or Impostor Syndrome:
We all need mental health days sometimes, but I have heard several friends within the Black community at my school say that they cannot afford mental health days due to pressure to prove their intelligence and work ethic to their professor and peers — and likely themselves as well. Hard work is important, but it is not a justification for ignoring your body’s needs. Sleep deprivation, burnout and poor mental health will only redouble the underperformance you aim to mitigate.
Set goals for yourself
Setting goals allows us the celebrate small victories. Everyone fails from time to time, but if we focus on our failures, we neglect to celebrate our accomplishments. Your goal can look like anything, from running a race to making your bed every day. Last year, I found myself doubting my ability to overcome challenges and I knew that I needed to prove to myself that I was capable of persevering and succeeding. I decided to train for and run a half-marathon that semester. Completing it raised my sense of accomplishment and pride immeasurably.
Surround yourself with people who understand your feelings
There are few feelings worse than isolation, and when you are trying to conquer Minority-Status Stress, it is essential to have people around you who might be able to relate to your situation and understand where you are coming from. It can also be helpful to speak to upperclassmen who have previously experienced similar feelings and get advice on how they overcame it.
Stay connected to your friends, family, and traditions at home
Maintaining your communication with figures from your hometown can remind you that your cultural heritage is one that should be celebrated, not hidden. Our communities know us best, and even speaking with them for short periods reconnects us with the things we love about ourselves. Continue to celebrate traditions that were special to you at home, and remember that even when you are feeling unaccomplished, your community is incredibly proud of you.
Be patient and compassionate with yourself
Your grades are not a reflection of who you are as a person or as a student, they are a reflection of your performance under the current conditions. Those conditions may be a lack of experience, anxiety, stress, classmates, professors, even the time of day of the class — but conditions change. You will learn how to cope with the expectations that come with your new environment, even if it takes longer than expected. Thank yourself for the effort that you have put in and reflect on why that effort is not yet translating to results.
If you feel comfortable, reach out to your professor, teaching assistant or dean.
Communicating with faculty about your academic understanding can be an enlightening exchange for both you and your professor. This likely is not the first time they have seen a student struggle, and your words might help them improve as lecturers. A professor or dean might also have tips for you. Communicating your concerns also relieves you of the burden of pretending that you are thriving and can soothe anxieties that come with admitting confusion to a professor.
If the previous options do not work for you, or your feelings of isolation and stress are negatively impacting your mental health, consider reaching out to the counselors at your school. If you are able and willing to seek therapists outside of your school, sites like Muslim Mental Health and Therapy for Black Girls will offer you a list of therapists in your area that fit the description you are looking for.
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