How UT Culture Perpetuates The Impostor Phenomenon

By Tara Phipps

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Every UT Student walks into a top-rated university known for academic competitiveness. They stand among their peers- triple majors, club presidents, and interns- and inevitably compare themselves. It can be overwhelming, to say the least.

That overwhelming feeling can spiral into the Impostor Phenomenon for many students at the University of Texas.

“It’s a sense among individuals who are academically successful who feel like they are frauds,” Dr. Kevin Cokley, a professor in UT’s Department of Educational Psychology, said. Cokley has observed this phenomenon among many students of various backgrounds at UT.

UT’s culture, he said, has the potential to perpetuate this feeling of ineptitude for students. “UT, like any higher education, has a culture that is fairly competitive,” Cokley said. “Students come from strong academic background, being among the best students, they find themselves now not necessarily being at the top of the class, and that can begin those feelings of self doubt.”

All colleges offer academic rigor, but UT is especially intense when it comes to academic success, and is known as a public ivy for providing Ivy League education at a public university. 

“My sense, and based off what we know about Impostor Syndrome, is this sense is heightened at more academically challenging colleges,” Cokley said.

UT Tower photographed by Tara Phipps

Such is the case for Gracelyn Prom, a neuroscience and psychology sophomore. “Because UT is so highly competitive, even when I feel like I’m doing well, someone is always doing better,” Prom said. “My pride is invalidated as a result.” 

For Prom, she feels like she’s putting up a facade of a well-rounded image while she actually struggles with her mental health, social life, and academics. These struggles have led her to believe the impostor feeling to be one of the main causes of her anxiety and depression. 

Prom was told growing up that she was smart and her future success would depend on that. As she’s integrated into UT, though, those impostor feelings have had a large impact on how she feels about her success and identity. “As I began to feel my ‘intelligence status’ dissipating, I felt like I was losing an integral piece of who I am as well.”

History Sophomore Amanda Westra, a transfer student, said she shares many of the same sentiments about her own success. At her previous University, St. Edwards, Westra said she never felt the same pressure. 

“It wasn’t the same competitive environment that’s here,” she said. “I want to be up to my own standards and sometimes Impostor Syndrome makes me feel like I’m never going to get there.”

Image Credit: Unsplash @siora18

For Westra, she understands this impostor feeling will come and go and that the inadequacy she feels is not the reality of the situation, but it doesn’t excuse the fact that for her and so many others on the Forty Acres, this phenomenon has a detrimental affect on their mental health.

When it comes to coping with impostor feelings, Prom admitted she’s pretty bad at helping herself in distress. “I usually try to sleep off my emotions,” but that’s only a temporary solution. When she’s able to help herself, she enjoys getting active by rock climbing or dancing.

Westra also enjoys getting active to manage her impostor feelings, as well as focusing on hobbies and classes. But there’s more to it than that. “Coping for me is about positive thinking,” Westra said. “And reminding myself that I’m just as much of a UT student as anyone else.”

Cokley is a big advocate for mental health, and recommends students seek out campus resources like the counseling center, as well as finding students around campus that have similar social identities to talk with in a safe space.

If students are having doubts about their accomplishments, Cokley suggests they keep a diary to note their achievements, no matter how big or small. “You need to sort of remind yourself that you are actually an accomplished individual.” 

Everyone on the Forty Acres has earned their spot in one way or another, and it’s important to remember that as we all traverse through college life. Mental health should be a top priority, so as these feelings creep in, reach out. We are not impostors, no matter how much our brains try to tell us otherwise, and we have to tackle the issue head on to realize that we are not standing behind our peers, but rather right beside them.