SHREVEPORT – Imposter Syndrome. The idea that someone doesn’t belong or isn’t good enough.
Nearly all college students encounter this feeling at some point in their academic careers.
But for first-generation students, ones in which neither parent obtained a four-year degree, these feelings can appear more often and have a larger negative impact than their peers.
“Imposter Syndrome is very real, and without strong support from parents who have already faced the challenges of college, students can stumble, become disillusioned and leave college when they mistakenly think they don’t belong,” said LSUS Chancellor Dr. Robert Smith, a first-generation student himself. “This is personal for me. Reflecting back to when I was in college, my parents were incredibly supportive of me attending college. But not having attended college themselves, they had no real handle on the challenges that college brings or an approach to handle these challenges. As with many first-generation college students, I had real doubts as to whether or not I belonged in college, and especially whether I had what it took to be a mathematics major.”
With roughly half of LSUS’s undergraduate students self-identifying as first-generation, the University is taking a proactive role in addressing the needs and concerns of this student population. Angie Pellerin, assistant vice chancellor for student success initiatives, said LSUS is regularly analyzing its internal processes to identify potential stumbling blocks.
“What happens when they get admitted – does their advisor contact them and does the student know what to do next?” Pellerin said. “Our Admissions team has an entire portal that explains the next steps, but we’re still getting students that feel lost. We’re trying to think about this from a student’s perspective – their journey. What do we see students struggling with when they are coming through our doors?”
The cadence of a college academic year – when to register for classes/financial aid, how do drop dates work, how to navigate a course catalog – are common topics addressed.
Pellerin has put together a series of workshops targeted at first-generation students, and she plans to offer this content in an online, on-demand format in the future so students can consume at their leisure. Part of that content is what Pellerin calls the “Hidden Curriculum,” or topics that typically aren’t addressed at length but that students are supposed to know.
“The rules that you’re supposed to know but nobody talks about,” said Pellerin, who is also a first-generation college graduate. “If you don’t know the rules, that’s where people feel like they don’t belong. One of the most common things we see is the selection of a major not necessarily lining up with their career goals, and a student may come to us later in their degree program with all of these credits that may not be applicable. So that’s where our advisors and Career Services folks can play a big role in making sure students are connecting a major with their desired career.”
Eighty percent of LSUS students who responded to a survey this past spring say they work more than 30 hours a week, meaning providing a self-serve option to consume the first-generation content will reach more students. Pellerin, who served as the Director of Counseling Services before her current post, said she’d typically see overwhelmed students seek counseling in the second half of spring semesters because they were in danger of losing financial aid with poor academic performance.
One of her priorities is to reach students early enough to affect change before it’s too late.
For first-time freshmen, that begins in a revamped First-Year Seminar class.
“We know students get four-week grades, and so we try to identify students who might have struggled on that first test in a class as they adjust to the rigors of college classes,” Pellerin said. “It takes just that one little thing to confirm the feeling that a student doesn’t belong, so we’re trying to do everything we can for students not to feel that way.
“We have peer mentors that have in-depth conversations with our students and outline a plan to turn the semester around.”
The LSUS plan is bearing fruit. Earlier this fall, LSUS earned Tier 1 status in the second annual Economic Mobility Index, which measures how effectively institutions help low-income students improve their socioeconomic level. LSUS was one of 11 colleges selected to participate in a new national initiative to transform the first two years of the college experience. The Gardner Institute is facilitating the initiative. The University makes sure to celebrate first-generation student success along the way. In addition to offering first-generation cords at graduation ceremonies, LSUS inducted its first class into Tri Alpha, a national honors society for first-generation students. More than 150 students and faculty/staff were inducted into the LSUS chapter’s inaugural class this past Thursday.
Criminal justice major Marah Hamdan said recognition for first-generation students is incredibly important.
“It gives me pride for my hard work and accomplishing my goals,” Hamdan said. “The biggest barrier for first-gen students is the lack of academic empathy from their parents.
“Sometimes, (parents) may underestimate the difficulties to pressure you to achieve the goal but not be fully empathetic with the struggle you face. LSUS is very appreciative of first-gen students and highly acknowledges them, which is very considerate when students want to feel included on college campuses. Hamdan is seeking to start a first-generation student organization, creating a social network and support group that is student-led.
“I came up with this idea because of the inspiration of other schools having inclusivity,” Hamdan said. “Being first-generation is one of the most common barriers for students, and having an organization like this can help limit that barrier and provide networking opportunities with each other.” In addition to the value such an organization would create for students, Pellerin sees value in having a student organization helping to promote workshops and access to resources on campus.
“First-generation students take such pride in these accomplishments, and LSUS is incredibly proud of these students, too,” Pellerin said. “We try to embed certain things throughout the curriculum to help facilitate these successes, such as career exploration and the connection to available resources. It’s important to have that sense of belonging, and there’s data to show that if you can create that sense of belonging, it impacts both academic success and personal well-being. The way to create that is through building relationships with students, and that takes everyone in all kinds of distinct roles on campus.”