I’m an Imposter Here

I’m shocked that I decided to start this BLOG as part of a professional development activity.  What do I have to offer?  Can I write?  I feel like an imposter!

As I mentioned in a previous post, when I was growing up I was referred to as and believed myself to be a “math person”. I was also told that I was not a “language person”.  In my early education, through 6th grade when all subjects were taught by the same teacher, these labels didn’t seem to matter much.  However in junior and senior high it seemed to matter a lot, and I started to believe that I was somehow language defective. I believed that I would never be a good reader or writer, and all the standardized tests that I took seemed to support that.

In my senior year as I was applying to colleges, I found that the only teachers who really supported me applying to colleges that were “highly selective” were my math teachers.  Most other teachers tried to adjust my expectations and tried to get me to rethink my choices.  I was even told by one of my teachers that “people like you don’t go to college,” and I’d even done well in his class judging by the grade I received. Luckily, I had the support of my math teachers and my counselor as well as my family and friends. The math teachers wrote letters of recommendation for me.  A family friend helped me review my application package and personal statement, and gave me good feedback. With that help and support I was admitted to and attended one of those “highly selective” colleges.

Even though I was admitted to the college through an application process where only 1 in 10 candidates was accepted, I had my doubts that I belonged.  I’d been told many times and by a variety of people that a college like this was not the place for me.  I knew that I was a slow reader and I knew that I was not a great writer and at times it was difficult to convince myself that I belonged in college.  I doubted my ability to be able to succeed in courses that required a lot of writing, so I selected classes that didn’t require much of it.  But, even if you major in math you can’t completely avoid writing. So, I did write papers while in college.  I forced myself to do it because I was determined to someday tell that teacher he was wrong and show him my diploma.  Those papers were always returned to me with lot of comments, and I didn’t feel like I had the capability of changing my writing ability, so I didn’t put a lot of effort into doing so. What would be the point in trying to change something that I felt couldn’t be changed?

Now I’m on the other side of college life.  I’m an instructor. I participate in many conversations with my colleagues about student success. The Math department is different from other departments in that even the highest level courses in our department are filled with primarily non-majors.  They take the math courses not because of their interest in math, but because they need it to satisfy the requirement for another major, and many of the students find that they struggle with math. From time to time as instructors we wonder about our student’s motivations for taking these challenging courses or for choosing a certain academic path that requires them to take these courses that make them miserable.

In a recent email thread some of the people in my department were pondering the reason why students force themselves to struggle through these higher level math classes.  Would they really be able to be successful in the academic path they’d chosen? Would they be happy in their chosen careers?  This made me think about my own college experience.  I wondered how my non-math instructors saw me.  Was I an example of a college student who could be perceived as not having what it takes to do well in college or life, when in fact I did have that potential? So, I wrote and sent the following email (unedited for inclusion here) to the instructors on that email thread.

As, some of you know I am dyslexic.  I struggle to read.  Really struggle sometimes and it can be exacerbated by the font and the size of the text, and what else is going on while I’m trying to read.  Give me a document in a meeting at the same time as everyone else and I have a mini panic attack.  I’ll be 1/4 of the way done by the time other’s have finished. 

I can spell “cat” and most other common words.  But, in general I’m a poor speller and a terrible editor because of the dyslexia. While I’m not likely to miss that cat is spelled wrong in a document, I have been known to miss the fact that my own name is spelled wrong.  

I can read!  
I do read! 
I can write!
I do write!  

In fact, I’ve been told a few times that I am a good writer. (Thank goodness for modern word processing software, because that’s the only way I’m able to pull that off.) 

Having said all that, I’m sure that some of my instructors in college would have had trouble coming to that conclusion.  I can’t imagine the emails that might have been sent about me and the skills that I lacked to be a college student or a successful adult. However, I hope that you all find me to be a competent colleague. In fact, I’m fairly certain that you do, or I wouldn’t have the courage to write such and email.

Why did I choose to include this as a part of my BLOG?

I want this to be a story to remind us all that many of our students come to college and don’t see themselves as college students.  That might be because of the labels that were given to them as K-12 students. That might be because of the lack of academic success that they’ve had in the past. Or, it might be because they’ve been told by others that they don’t belong. Some of those students are stubborn like me and will do everything in their power to prove the Nay-sayers wrong.  But, for many others I fear that the doubt of others becomes a strong doubt of their own.  Although they have decided to give it a try, they believe that they don’t belong in college.  If they see signs that reinforce or in their eyes confirm those doubts they’ll disappear. What can we do to support these students? How does it change if they come to us needing developmental courses and are in other ways underprepared to succeed? How do we talk to these students?  How do we help them to get prepared and help them to be successful? How can we help them to see the skills and potential that they have that have gone unnoticed? How do we help them to see themselves as college students?  How do we help them to shed the labels? These are important questions to answer, because it can be hard to put in the effort it takes to succeed when you feel like an imposter.


2 thoughts on “I’m an Imposter Here

  1. Thank you for this story. I remember when I was in college. I really did see myself as belonging there. But that sense of belonging was readily shaken when I bumped up against failure–failure to find a good balance between school and life circumstances. For a year, I went around telling my relatives that I might continue or I might become an electrician instead of a teacher. I think about this a lot in the context of my students. I worry at times that society is sending a message to students and families that the only way to be successful is by going to college. I don’t like such limiting messages. I believe that we all progress on our own timeline. And if we, as a society, say loud enough and often enough that there is only one right path and timeline, then people may start doing college not because they want to or because it feels right, but because they feel there is no other option. What if this is already happening? What can we do for those students in our classes? In our college? Are we creating the kinds of experiences that will serve not only the students who feel like imposters but also the students who feel like they have no other choice? I think that we could up our game if we wanted to do that. I think that as a college, we could start by providing a first year program that a student can opt out of if it doesn’t feel right for them (but which otherwise is the default). We could provide streamlined registration based on cohorts. We could encourage the incorporation of service learning into that first year experience (and beyond) and we could adopt as a priority the development of student voice. After reflecting on what we don’t like, we could envision an alternative and then pivot to realize that alternative vision. All of that is well within the power of our institution should we decide to come together and make it happen. That is the work that I am most interested in.

    • Thanks for the flip side of my story. I do tend to have a somewhat narrowly focused lens based on my own experiences. I wonder/worry about the students who don’t see another choice, or don’t feel that college is right for them, if it’s too much based on the voices that have told them many times over that is the case. However, you’re correct there are other successful paths through life that don’t go through college.

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