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My Experience with Imposter Syndrome as a First-Generation College Student

My name is Kinsley, and I’m a 22-year-old first-generation college student attending one of the best universities in the nation, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. UNC is one of the foremost public universities in the United States, and with a status like that, you can imagine the number of talented and intelligent minds that attend.

At this point in the blog, you may be thinking, “wow, she thinks quite highly of herself….” And my response to that would be quite the opposite, actually. Going to school with some of the most brilliant and most impressive people I’ve met so far in my life is not easy, and comparison has brewed faster and stronger in my mind than ever before.

Growing up, I never struggled academically. Honestly, I never had to study for exams or take notes. Because academic work was not a struggle for me and came so easily, I never took pride in any of the accomplishments and achievements I’d receive. Getting straight A’s is less impressive when you’ve done it all your life and never put in the work to do it. That said, I never truly learned how to study effectively in a way that would work for me.

When it came time for senior year of high school, everyone knew where they planned to go to college except me (or so it felt). Coming home and discussing it with my parents, I didn’t get encouragement that I could go anywhere or do anything; I got told to apply to community college. Paying for college was obviously a factor in my decision to go to a local community college- but also, I didn’t know HOW to go to a university. Neither of my parents attended college and were wary of discussing the subject, so I didn’t have a support system to really lean on for advice. I also grew up a military brat (each year of high school in a different state), so school counselors never gave me much attention because I either was bound to leave or arrived too late.

I didn’t care that I was going to a community college, but other people did. For some reason, there’s a stigma surrounding community college as if it’s solely “underperforming” or “lackluster” high school graduates that couldn’t get in anywhere they applied. I felt a sense of disappointment from the people I’d tell, so I began to avoid the subject altogether.

Eventually, I found a program through my community college that partnered with UNC; after graduating with an associate's degree, individuals accepted into the program would immediately continue their college coursework at UNC for their bachelor's degree.

My high school credentials got me accepted into the program, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time before my UNC move. Community college was genuinely one of the greatest experiences of my life, and I’d recommend it to anyone; I met a diverse group of individuals from all different age groups that bore no judgment. My experience was welcoming and genuinely fun- and then I graduated. (I actually graduated early before most of my UNC-transitioning cohort, so I had a free semester to spend which was amazing.)

When it came time to attend UNC, the pandemic was raging, and classes were online- which was different- and suddenly, I felt as if I were in a competition with all other students. People openly discussed how many internships they were doing and their A scores taking the hardest courses. People asked one another what they wrote in their applications and who gave them letters of recommendation. People boasted of the community they felt attending the university their family had attended for years and years. I felt I couldn’t relate to the people I was in classes with. I felt my prior academic accomplishments meant nothing because I hadn’t experienced the rigor of a university. I felt I didn’t belong there.

The competition element also runs rampant. People want to be in the best classes with multiple internships and glowing recommendations for future careers. I felt like I was going to school in a LinkedIn feed. My parents never told me I should be furiously searching for internships…honestly, no one did until UNC. Though I had one internship during community college, everyone else seemed to have more. I applied for internship after internship, eventually securing a final interview to be a Public Affairs Intern at NASA (talk about cool)- but because of the pandemic, funding was cut, and the position was no longer being filled. I seriously stressed for months on end that I would never find a job or be successful because I’m not doing as much as everyone around me. I don’t believe that now, but it was a tough feeling to shake.

I also came to realize most people expect you’ve had the same college experience as them (living on campus freshman year and not transferring schools). When I’d tell people I was a transfer student, they would be surprised, but even more so when I’d say from a community college. “Oh wow, good for you!” or “you must feel so accomplished!” Like, come on- we’re going to the same school.

Honestly, is UNC harder than my community college classes? In my opinion…no. Am I struggling academically? Far from it. But I still don’t feel like a UNC student. I feel like a phony in all my classes. I don’t have a connection to my school and find it hard to truly connect with other students. Is that their fault? Absolutely not. And I’ve definitely made and hung out with friends, but I think college being “the best years of your life” is entirely incorrect. That notion doesn’t resonate with me, but maybe it’s different when your parents went to college, and you’ve had the 4-year university experience at one school.

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