“Hi. My name is Ben. I’m an imposter and I don’t belong here.”
A student cried in my office the other day. It was not the first time this has happened.
At first she was just telling me about her situation, her intention to withdraw from the course. She had hired a private tutor and this tutor advised her she didn’t belong in my class due to the inadequacies of her writing. While she continued talking, I pulled out her last in-class, hand written quiz and gave it a quick read, glancing back and forth to let her know I was still listening. I turned to her, incredulous, and interrupted, “I think you can pass this class.” By the last word of the sentence, she lost it.
This story is familiar to me. It’s probably the case with many students, but I think I had imposter syndrome throughout my education. From K-12 through to college and on to its fever pitch in grad school (even now as a teacher), I have always been waiting for someone to discover, at any moment, that I am a fraud, that I don’t actually belong here, that I’m not smart enough for college.
Looking back, I think this might be what has actually drawn me to community college – the way that we serve as an access point to all students, giving anyone a seat at a table where they may have been previously excluded. From wherever students come, here they find a unique entrance into academia, art, culture, civics, the economy.
But I didn’t always realize how important that was. Right out of high school, I enrolled at Las Positas and we had our own nicknames for the place: Lost Potential, The College Behind Costco. Chabot, the sister school, we called Sh’Blew-It. We had convinced one another that no one should be proud of enrolling in a community college. It wasn’t something you told people voluntarily. It was a last-resort thing, a sign indicating that someone had arrived with a serious case of failure. So of course I couldn’t tell anyone the truth, that I was completely intimidated by the prestige of college, of any college.
Both of these attitudes seem to be common among the students I encounter in my courses. There are two kinds, those who think they aren’t smart enough for college and those who think they’re too smart. Both think, “I don’t belong here,” but it’s the first group that interests me the most. For them it could be the smallest comment that might disabuse them of their own self-doubt, something as small and easy as a teacher saying, “You are doing just fine in this class.” Actually, it was this exact comment that stopped me from dropping out of grad school.
So to any students reading this or to any other teachers, I would want to say this: if you are here, you belong here.