Do I belong? The Impact of Imposter Syndrome on First-Generation Minority Students


The Science building at NJCU where most STEM classes are taken. Only 7 and 12 percent of Black and Hispanic students pursue a degree in STEM. Photo by Haresh Oudhnarine.

Kamila Esquivel and Nicolle Vilca

For most, getting accepted into a prestigious university is cause for celebration, but excitement can quickly turn into feelings of dread as thoughts of inadequacy creep in. As a person of color, these feelings can be due to imposter syndrome, where high-achieving individuals are unable to accept and internalize their success but rather attribute it to outside forces such as luck or receiving help from others.

Studies show that minority students and first-generation college students are especially inclined to develop imposter syndrome; as are those within STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). As first-generation, Latina STEM students, we constantly fight to overcome these feelings to reach our full potential.

It has been found that Black and Hispanic students are not as likely to get a degree in STEM compared to their white counterparts. And with Black and Hispanic students earning only 7 and 12 percent of all STEM bachelor’s degrees respectively, they are underrepresented in college STEM majors and departments, according to Pew Research.

Emily Hu, a clinical psychologist said, “We’re more likely to experience imposter syndrome if we don’t see many examples of people who look like us or share our background who are clearly succeeding in our field.” Therefore, a lack of diverse professionals and peers in STEM careers and college majors can make minority STEM students feel like they don’t belong.

We’re more likely to experience imposter syndrome if we don’t see many examples of people who look like us or share our background who are clearly succeeding in our field.

— Emily Hu

Recognizing the intersectional nature of humans, minority undergrads are often also first-generation college students. In fact, 54 percent of all first-generation college students are also racial minorities. A study published in Translational Issues in Psychological Science found that the sciences are less culturally supportive of first-generation college students, particularly those from racial minorities who come from communal cultures, where collaboration and working together is valued over competition. We believe that this culture clash contributes to first-generation students of color developing imposter syndrome.

But imposter syndrome can be overcome. Support systems are crucial for first-generation students of color to succeed and move beyond feelings of self-doubt. As NJCU students, we have access to programs supporting our academic success, and making us feel more confident in our schoolwork. “On Pace for STEM Success” pairs STEM students with departmental faculty mentors and provides educational and career support.

Similarly, STEM Success Academy provides students with foundational STEM courses through a summer intensive preparing them for more advanced coursework. Participating in these programs has provided us with access to mentors and foundational skills as we continue down our academic path, helping to combat the feelings of inadequacy that come from imposter syndrome. They have been the first step in what we hope will be successful careers in STEM.

Having the right resources and tools is the first step in overcoming feelings of self-doubt for first-generation minority STEM students, but it doesn’t stop there. Separating facts from feelings, taking note of your accomplishments, and simply faking it until you make it are all common tools to overcome imposter syndrome. And it’s important that we do. Diversity in STEM fields is essential to innovation and there is no better time to think about this important issue than now during New Jersey STEM Month. Using the resources and tools available to us, we can rise to this challenge to achieve our goals and dreams and to be an important part of the future of STEM.

Kamila Esquivel is a sophomore at New Jersey City University majoring in psychology and minoring in biology. She hopes to work in the mental health field and make it more accessible to low-income communities. Nicolle Vilca is a freshman at New Jersey City majoring in biology. She aspires to become an emergency medicine physician to improve minorities’ accessibility and quality of healthcare in the future. They are both 2021 Governor’s STEM Scholars which gives students in grades 10 through the doctoral level a chance to explore STEM and helps keep talented students in the state.