Dealing with imposter syndrome as a working-class student at a Russell Group university

When the dreaded words ‘UCAS application’ were first said aloud during one of my A-Level lessons, I was still unsure about whether I wanted to go to university or not. For most of my time at school, the idea of university was always a daunting one; evoking ideas of elitist institutions. It was clear these were not a place for ‘someone like me’ — someone from a working-class background.

Growing up in Cornwall, the second poorest region in Northern Europe (where fewer students go into higher education compared to the national average), made the prospect of going to university even more unnerving. Even before applying to university I had experience with imposter syndrome, feeling like I wasn’t smart enough to be accepted in the first place and wouldn’t fit in because I came from a working-class family in a deprived area. And when I actually was accepted and attended my first year of university, my imposter syndrome was only amplified by the experience.

…did I really belong there? Imposter syndrome made me feel the answer was no.

The phenomenon of feeling inadequate compared to your peers is not rare. In fact, it affects a lot of students throughout their educational journey, especially in the transfer to higher education. Coined by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in their 1978 paper, imposter syndrome is described as the “internal experience of intellectual phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement”.

Imposter syndrome can affect any student at university, but I personally think it’s more prevalent among those who are working-class and quickly discover that academia is a system that wasn’t built for them nor favours their culture. Being working-class and attending a Russell Group university makes this discovery even more hard-hitting.

Before attending university, I went to a state school and had never met anyone who had attended a public school. Like many other working-class families, I have never been on a plane or on a holiday abroad. In fact, I only got my first passport last year (still unused thanks to Covid-19). So, when in the first few weeks of university I met people who were public-school educated, well-travelled and came from wealthy families; it was quite a culture shock. My background was very different to many of my new university peers. So did I really belong there? Imposter syndrome made me feel the answer was no.

having to explain to your wealthier flat or course mates that you ‘can’t afford to go out again this week’ can feel particularly embarrassing.

Studying a degree in media/journalism, I realised early on that my class background and where I grew up provided another obstacle in terms of work experience. Due to the lack of a prominent media industry in Cornwall, I was never able to undertake any media-related work experience. At university, I soon discovered that I was essentially in a race with students from wealthier families who were more likely to have connections in the industries I was interested in — making it easier for them to secure placements. I felt I would always be at a disadvantage due to not having those same connections.

These class differences can affect the experience of imposter syndrome in other areas of university life too. For example; the social aspect.

Living on a student budget can be tough for everyone but having to explain to your wealthier flat or course mates that you ‘can’t afford to go out again this week’ can feel particularly embarrassing. University balls or other formal events, which very much cater to middle-class culture, can breed feelings of self-consciousness among working-class students; making them nervous about the correct etiquette or making a mistake. These instances only contribute to the feeling that you don’t belong in this environment; that you’re an imposter.

Of course, there is support for working-class students, or any students, who are experiencing imposter syndrome at university. It doesn’t have to be a suffer-in-silence type of situation.

However, the fact is that many working-class students attending top universities do at times feel alienated in this new and strange environment, and I believe more work needs to be done to make these institutions more comfortable and accessible for everyone.

By Leah Hocking

Illustration: by Hannah Imafidon

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