Stephen Nuño-Pérez and Gwen Aviles, NBC News, April 2, 2019
Several Latino students, graduates and experts said the recent news of an alleged plot by wealthy parents to cheat admissions requirements so their children had a better chance of getting into an elite university was surprising and upsetting.
In college, these Latino students felt they were constantly battling the feeling that people thought they were in good schools because they were “diverse” or part of a Hispanic “quota.” Yet it seemed no one ever second-guessed the qualifications of wealthy, white students who attended the college.
“It’s very interesting that most of us never thought to question whether other people who are in these classrooms deserve admissions,” Angélica Gutiérrez, a professor at Loyola Marymount University, said. “We just assumed they deserved admissions more than we do.”
The lasting toll of ‘impostor syndrome’
Latino students, as well as other minorities, often question the idea that their success is a function of their intelligence and hard work. Instead, researchers have found that these young people often internalize social stereotypes and actually believe they gained admission because of their ethnic background. This is what researchers call impostor syndrome.
Marial Mendez, 27, graduated from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and is a student in the Harvard Medical School’s program to prevent diseases in underserved communities. “I had multiple, very racial moments where people were like, ‘You’re only there to increase their diversity numbers,’ comments like that, and at first you’re like, ‘Oh God, that’s awful.’ But then, after someone repeats it a couple of times, you start to question, like, ‘OK, but am I?’”
Moreover, the feeling of being a fraud does not end with college, according to Pacific Lutheran University professor and scholar Maria Chavez.
In her upcoming book, Latino Professionals in America, she studied the experiences of successful Latino professionals and their reflections on their pathways through academia and the career ladder.
The feeling of guilt or being a fraud was “huge” for Latino students, Chavez said, even though they seemingly got past these barriers to achieve educational and career success.
Andrew Martinez, 28, graduated from Cornell University and is currently a doctoral student in higher education at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.
Martinez was part of a diversity initiative in the school’s Educational Opportunity Program to help students with financial needs, and he recalled how that led to questions about his intellectual and academic abilities.
Researchers first began to explore this “impostor phenomenon” among high achieving women in the 1970s. Despite their accomplishments, lower social expectations made women feel as if their achievements were unearned or the result of luck. By contrast, social expectations that associate success with being a man lead men to attribute their success to their superior abilities.
Scholars are studying similar experiences with minority students, who also battle the stereotypes that their success is not based on their merits but on special treatment.
Tracing who ‘deserves’ to be in college
Some Latino researchers are digging deeper into what breeds this in university culture. Gutiérrez, who teaches at Loyola Marymount’s College of Business Administration, says these feelings are deeply rooted in race and the sense of entitlement that some white people feel they have to higher education.
One reason these feelings can be so strong is because white families may have traditionally felt accustomed to better access to jobs, and admissions policies have been traditional protectors of status with deep racial implications.
Gutiérrrez, who went to UCLA and the University of Michigan, experienced impostor syndrome herself. She remembers entering UCLA and feeling as if the only reason she was accepted was because she was Latina.
“When we walk into the classroom, we are the only persons of color.” She said it sometimes feels like “we weren’t supposed to be in these spaces. It has definitely made me question whether or not I am going into academia.”
While Latino students represent a broad demographic in U.S. universities — including wealthy Hispanics and students from Latin America —many Latino students come from U.S. households that are poorer than their white peers: Pew Research reports that median household wealth for white U.S. families is more than 10 times that of Hispanic households.
This disparity in wealth is a major educational disadvantage for many Latino students. A recent report by the nonprofit organization EdBuild found nonwhite school districts receive $23 billion less than majority-white school districts.
Sharing, connecting ‘makes a difference’
Seeking and maintaining connections have been very helpful to Latino scholars who sometimes question their continuing work or presence at an institution. Perez said he joined a club, MEChA, that reminded him of home; MEChA is a national organization formed in the 1960s to empower Mexican-American youth.
Advisers who work with minority students as well as educators say that just talking about impostor syndrome with others can be empowering.