Campus Highlight: California State University-Stanislaus: “Do I Belong Here?" Unmasking the Impostor Syndrome

By Ann Strahm, Associate Professor of Sociology, and Erin P. Littlepage, Assessment Specialist in the Office of Academic Programs, Both of California State University-Stanislaus

What am I doing here? Am I smart enough? Do I really belong in college? Can I fake it ‘till I make it?

Impostor syndrome is an invisible barrier. Put simply, it is an unwarranted “fear of being found out or discovered as stupid or unworthy”[1] that can impede an individual’s ability to accept and internalize accomplishments. This phenomenon particularly affects first-generation students who often struggle to form a sense of belonging on college campuses. Students from poorer and less educated families tend to have cumulative disadvantages, including the internalization of messages about who they are in relation to the broader, more affluent, dominant group. This causes feelings of inadequacy, which reinforce the feelings of not belonging.

The literature suggests that manifestations of psychological barriers to success, such as the impostor syndrome, are felt most acutely in students who are female, of color, working class, and/or come from disadvantaged families. At California State University-Stanislaus (Stanislaus State), the impostor syndrome likely affects our largely first-generation (76.8 percent), low-income (60.5 percent), minority (69.1 percent), traditionally underrepresented minority (58.6 percent), and female (66.7 percent) student population.[2] Stanislaus State students are primarily from the region surrounding the campus, which is one of the more impoverished areas in the United States.[3]


Why Impostor Syndrome Matters

Non-cognitive barriers related to a sense of belonging and ability negatively affect students’ overall experience, retention, and success. These negative effects are significant not only for the Stanislaus State campus, but also for the region (where 15.5 percent of adults in Stanislaus County hold a four-year degree). Therefore, in February 2016, supported with funding from a BTtoP well-being seminar grant, Stanislaus State organized a panel discussion as part of the broader Stanislaus Education Partnership, a regional learning and practice community committed to regular communication, shared data, and activities aimed at easing students’ transitions between educational segments (K-12, California Community College, and California State University systems).

Seminar participants included K-12 administrators as well as counselors, advising professionals, and faculty from Modesto Junior College. Also present was a cross-divisional audience from Stanislaus State, including faculty, advisors, administrators, staff, and students for a total of thirty participants (excluding panelists). At this event, Stanislaus State sociology faculty facilitated a panel discussion on the impostor syndrome, opening with an administration of the Clance IP scale to evaluate participants’ levels of impostor syndrome.[4] Tallied responses demonstrated a range of rankings, with those indicating first generation status ranking highest on the scale. The panel, made up entirely of first generation faculty and former students, shared their own experiences in an effort to reveal implicit biases, stereotype threats, and gatekeeping present at all levels of the education system. 


Mitigating Impostor Syndrome across Systems

Students who feel like they belong have greater persistence, more positive learning experiences, and better overall outcomes.[5] The faculty panel led participants in a discussion of potential “do’s” and “don’ts” in an effort to alleviate the impact of the impostor syndrome. The panel noted that college faculty can teach first-generation students, working-class students, and students of color about their own histories and biographies and provide students with rigorous intellectual journeys. Faculty should also recognize that first generation students may learn differently, and they should embrace what this population brings to the proverbial table rather than treat them using a deficit model.[6] The panelists also facilitated discussion about how K-12 personnel can work to disrupt the development of the impostor syndrome, noting that schools need to work to find mentors for students who might have shared experiences, histories, and backgrounds; create safe spaces for students who are historically marginalized; and advocate for every student.

Participants at the event discussed potential interventions, including the proposed development of workshops geared toward providing resources and training for faculty. Members of the Stanislaus Education Partnership also recognized the potential of existing and planned interventions to support mitigation of the impostor syndrome. Work has already started on developing “One-Stop Caravans” in local high schools. These caravans will include financial aid counseling and academic advising as well as a “Near Peer”—a current Stanislaus State or community college student who graduated from the high school—who will act as a model and resource for first-generation students. Parent outreach will also be included, as the caravans will provide resources on financial planning/support and engage parents in discussions regarding college life and expectations.


Conclusion and Next Steps

First-generation college students, working-class or poverty-class college students, women, and/or students of color often feel inadequate—like they are frauds who don't deserve to be members of an intellectual or campus community. The organizers of this well-being seminar hope that this discussion was a first step in helping those with the most influence on students’ lives at school understand the need to stop the socializing processes that serve as vectors for the development of impostor syndrome. Participants were surveyed following the event and responses indicated the desire for continued conversations on this topic. Stanislaus State hopes to organize additional regional conferences in the future.

[1] Sarah Vermunt, “Do You Suffer from Impostor Syndrome?,” HuffPost Living Canada, September 5, 2013,

[2] California State University, “Stanislaus First-Time Freshmen Entering Cohorts Fall 2003 to Fall 2015,” Office of Institutional Research.

[3] Sarah Burd-Sharps and Kristen Lewis, A Portrait of California: California Human Development Report 2011, May 17, 2011,

[4] Pauline Rose Clance, "Clance IP Scale," in The Impostor Phenomenon When Success Makes You Feel like a Fake (Toronto: Bantam, 1985), 20-22.

[5] Monica Demcho, "Non-academic Factors Affecting Sense of Belonging in First Year Commuter Students at a Four-year Hispanic Serving Institution," ProQuest Dissertations and Theses; Ricardo Maestas, Gloria S. Vaquera, Linda Muñoz Zehr, “Factors Impacting Sense of Belonging at a Hispanic-Serving Institution,” Journal of Higher Education 6, no. 3 (2007): 273-256.

[6] This model presumes students of color and poor students come from cultural backgrounds that impede student learning and achievement. This model presumes that white, middle-class forms of knowledge production and attainment is not only functional, but it is superior to all others. For basic information on this model, please see: Samuel Y. Song and Shirley Mary Pyon, "Cultural Deficit Model," Encyclopedia of Educational Psychology, ed. Neil J. Salkind (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2008).