This Campus Life: First day jitters, first generation student

How to tackle imposter syndrome and vulnerability as a college student

The experiences of first generation college students are wrought with immense fears, anxieties and challenges. Such a challenge can include feelings of insecurity and incompetence in the face of a new environment. In this episode of "This Campus Life," ASU graduate student and first-year success coach Amber Layne reflects on her experience with Imposter Syndrome and the importance of vulnerability along her journey as a first generation college student.

Listen to this podcast on Spotify. 


STEFANO CONTRERAS (Host):

College, what do we think of when college comes to mind? A cycle of never ending parties with keg stands and frat boys everywhere. Late night study sessions at the library with a large coffee or an energy drink in hand, ruthless professors who don't care if you fail their class or not, crying on the bathroom floor while downing a carton of ramen, everyone having sex with everyone else.

Being up to your eyeballs in student loans and the stereotypical montage moment that comes at the end of every college movie when the main character throws their cap up victoriously into the air at graduation. We've seen it everywhere in the films and TV shows alike. We saw it in the '90s with Felicity juggling between Ben and Noel just about every other episode, while still somehow managing to be a student at NYU. We saw it again in the 2000s with Rory, from "Gilmore Girls," scheming around with her boyfriend during her wild time at Yale. In the 2010s, the "Pitch Perfect" saga showed us the crazy adventures of a college acapella group who would travel the world and get into all sorts of trouble while still managing to somehow go to class.

As college students, we know the reality. The movies and the TV shows, they lie to us. But for first generation college students, these portrayals of college in the media are really all they have to look up to. As a first generation college student myself, coming into college I didn't know what to expect.

I don't know what's going on. I don't know what to do. And I can't ask anyone in my immediate family for help. Entertainment media made me think college was going to be a certain way. And now I'm realizing the movies and the TV shows got it wrong. I am a voice in a sea of thousands of first generation students here at ASU.

So, this is where "This Campus Life" begins. The mission of this podcast is to reimagine the stereotypical college experience by giving a platform to students to share real stories and experiences. We kick off the program by speaking with Amber Layne, a first generation college student at ASU herself, to hear what it was like being the first in her family to go through the college experience.

AMBER LAYNE (Guest): 

I am a transfer student. I transferred from a small community college to ASU in fall of 2017. And when I got to ASU changed my major a bunch, and I wound up in anthropology, which I graduated with my bachelor's degree, this may and in the fall, I'll be starting the first year of my master's program, which is a master's of education in higher and postsecondary ed.

So I'm really looking forward to that. Um, and I am also traveling through the college experience as a bisexual, disabled woman. 

STEFANO CONTRERAS: 

You're a first generation student. Uh, tell me a little bit about that. What's your background like? 

AMBER LAYNE:

So I am a first generation college student, which means that I'm the first in my family to go to a four year college and complete the degree, um, which is, you know, kind of overwhelming. Um, my mom has an associate's degree and my dad has some college credits, but no degree. And so he's worked various jobs ranging from factory work to being a group home care provider. And my mom is, she's an LPN, which is a licensed practical nurse. Um, and following me, finishing my bachelor's degree and my mom is considering going back to get her bachelor's degree in nursing to be a registered nurse. So that's a little bit exciting 

STEFANO CONTRERAS:

Throughout your childhood and teenage years, what did you envision when you thought of college? 

AMBER LAYNE: 

My only framework for college really was either incredibly rigorous, very overwhelming, very, very high academic standards, really kind of, um, a push, push, push, go, go, go academically.

Or on the other extreme, heavy partying that it was like, those things seem antithetical, but like, in your mind, you - because of the way the media portrays it, you don't really get one without the other. 

STEFANO CONTRERAS: 

Yeah. Yeah. And you mentioned media, so like what type of mediums led you to sort of make that framework?

AMBER LAYNE: 

Definitely TV. Um, and in the age of quarantine, right, we're all going back and binge watching these comfort shows from our childhoods. And there was like "Gilmore Girls," just to use as an example, Rory wants to go to an Ivy league, Harvard or Yale, and then the depictions of these are painfully rigorous and nowhere near accurate, which I find was off-putting to me, someone who wasn't really academically successful in high school.

Because of things like that, I was too scared. I was, oh this is going to be too hard and I don't want to do it, but I'm not really a partier either. So I won't fit. Um, and really any kind of like coming of age, TV show, even like "Dawson's Creek" to, to go further a little bit back, but like college was this unattainable thing if you were academically, like, mediocre, I say with air quotes, um, and all of the coming of age shows have that. And so that's really where I developed that idea. 

STEFANO CONTRERAS: 

So, when you got to college, what was it really like from your perspective?

AMBER LAYNE: 

So, when I first went, my first day, I was sitting in my car in the parking lot, just shaking and crying and so scared that I was going to go in there and realize that I didn't fit, that this wasn't the spot for me, that this wasn't where I was supposed to go, and that it was just not going to work out. 

But when I finally like collected myself enough to walk in, it was really, you could feel nerves kind of in the air of all of these other students around you. And then when I sat down and my first class, I like pulled out my notebook and had my pencil ready and just sat there, like coiled tightly, like a spring.

I was so nervous and so scared. But then my professor walked in and introduced herself using her first name, talked about her credentials. And then she said — my first class was a math class, which is not my strong, it's not my strength. Um, and she said, "And I know a lot of you in here are afraid of math, but we're going to do it together, and I don't want you to be nervous or scared because I'm here to support you."

And I was like, "Support? What?" And that same kind of thing happened the first day in all of my classes, which was not at all what I had been led to believe it would be. I was really led to believe it was going to be, this is your responsibility, you have to take ownership of this — which is true to an extent, but there's so many supports there to help you that really kind of challenge the glamorized idea of what it should be, according to the media. 

STEFANO CONTRERAS: 

Did you know what you wanted to study right off the bat? 

AMBER LAYNE: 

The short answer is absolutely not. The longer answer is that I, in high school, I was very involved in theater, and I didn't care about academics because I was going to be an actress when I grew up.

It's all I ever wanted to do from childhood, right? But then I finished high school, and I was looking down like the practicalities of life and knowing that I don't come from a wealthy family. So if I go to LA or New York and essentially don't do well, I have, I have no safety net. I would have to come home.

And could I live with that kind of failure at the time? No. At 18, absolutely not. At 23? Absolutely not. You know? And so I had a few different jobs after high school, I managed a pretzel store, but then from there I moved into working at an eye doctor's office. And then from there, started working for an eye surgeon. And in that job being exposed to the medical field, I was like, well, I really think that I could be a nurse. This is what it is. This is what I'm going to do. And so when I started my undergraduate degree, I wanted to be a nurse, but then the longer I was in the program, I realized just how competitive nursing is. And so I was like, "Wow, I am so stressed because of how competitive this is."

Like my hair had started to fall out because I was so stressed and frankly, I'm not about that life. So when I transferred to ASU, I wasn't enjoying the classes anymore. Um, I wasn't enjoying my peers because it was really cutthroat, and I was just overwhelmed by that. And that's not to say that every person in nursing programs are cutthroat and mean, but I was already overwhelmed by it coming into ASU.

So I switched gears and went to speech and hearing science to be a speech pathologist. And at that time I was like, this would be great. It's in the medical field, I would still get to provide care and I could really incorporate the sign language that I'm learning into the kind of practice that I would have.

And then, I went to an advisor to talk about graduate school. And they were like, well we only have this many spots and we get over 6,000 applicants, and you have to have this GPA and this score on the GRE, or we don't even consider you. And I was shocked, first of all, just absolutely shocked that any advisor could be so dismissive of anybody's like dream, because if that advisor had said, well, actually, if you, um, so this is the score that you would need on the GRE.

Here are some prep materials. Here's what we recommend to get prepared. And here is the GPA you need to have and here's access to the tutoring centers and all of these other resources that you might need to get prepared for that. And if you don't quite meet those requirements, here are some other things that you might want to consider with your degree.

I might be a speech pathologist right now, but I was immediately off put by that and was like, okay, this is not the program for me, because even if I did well enough, this is same kind of culture as the nursing program. And like, what a horrible way to approach higher education, particularly for a student with a background like mine, a first generation, older transfer student, like how — that's just rude.

I mean, um, so. My major changed a few more times. And so I went back to just taking some random gen ed classes. I took an anthropology class with, um, Dr. Ruth (Dr. Elisa Ruth), and changed my life. Um, and so I got a degree in anthropology, and I wouldn't trade that for anything. But if you tell someone you're getting an anthropology degree, they're like, oh, dinosaurs.

And you say, Oh no, no people humans. And then they'll say something to the effect of, well, what are you going to do with that? And so it's also being able to challenge those things is really important because when our family's like, what is anthropology? Like, how can you get a job doing that? And you say, well, it's not really about anthropology as an undergraduate degree on its own. It's about how the skills that you get getting an anthropology degree, well suit you to other careers; like really well-suited for HR, for marketing, for social media management, for being diversity coordinators and consultants for, um, being in accessibility, like there's so, there's so many soft skills that you gain, and a lot of your undergrad degree is about those soft skills and how those are going to translate into a number of different careers. So it's not always about like what the major is. It's about the skills you're going to get while obtaining that major.

STEFANO CONTRERAS:

What did you find to be your biggest academic challenge your first year? 

AMBER LAYNE: 

Oh buddy. Um, the imposter syndrome.

STEFANO CONTRERAS: 

Imposter syndrome, as defined in 1978 by American psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. Imposter syndrome is described as feelings of phoniness and people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.

Despite being highly motivated to achieve, these individuals live in fear of being found out or exposed as frauds. Essentially, it's the feeling that you don't belong for feelings of fear and self doubt, and like you're tricking yourself and everyone around you into thinking you know what you're doing, even when you don't.

AMBER LAYNE: 

Which I find is not talked about as much to undergrads as it should be. So for me, the way that kind of manifested is even though all of these professors were being supportive, and even though you're feeling like, okay, we're all in this together with your classmates, there was this undercurrent that if I didn't perform academically perfectly, if I missed an assignment, if I didn't understand something immediately, that I was a fraud and that I didn't actually belong in this institution. And at any moment, like if I got a C on a test, my professor would say, maybe this was a mistake and you shouldn't be here. And that my, that my peers would realize that I wasn't, and I air quote again, smart enough to be in this position.

And it actually culminated one night. I was just sitting on my couch, crying so hard, and my partner came out of the bedroom and said, "What is wrong, are you okay?" And I said, no. And I described how I was feeling. And they said, well, that's imposter syndrome. And I said, what is that? And they were just baffled that no one had taken the time to really explain that to undergraduates, because it's particularly prevalent in women and people of color and people coming from poverty. And that's not to say that, that white cisgender heterosexual men don't experience it because they do, but that since it's so prevalent that no one would ever say anything and having to learn how to challenge those thoughts, because even now, even graduating summa cum laude from an R1 university is not enough to kind of get rid of that voice.

And so it's a consistent challenge. And so when, you know, when I'm not taking care of myself, like if I'm not eating well, if I'm not sleeping enough, that voice gets a little bit louder and a little bit louder. That's like, maybe you don't belong here. Maybe you shouldn't be here. And so my biggest challenge has really been learning how to challenge that and learning how to move past that so that I can be successful academically.

STEFANO CONTRERAS: 

When discussing imposter syndrome in your personal experience, what are some of those things that you did throughout college? Just to sort of try to overcome that challenge, if you will. 

AMBER LAYNE: 

So first, to really be authentic about it, like to be real because the only person you're hurting when you hide that is you.

Um, but the second I was authentic about it and honest with, with my peers, with my professors, with my TAs, I suddenly had this massive influx of support and of commonality. And, um, to have like a TA or your professor, someone that you're looking up to who has been through all of this and more and saying, Hey, I have felt that same way and I'm here now. 

And it's just like, wow. So first being able to be vulnerable and authentic about it and being honest about it, cause there's no shame in it. Um, and second, really taking a definition of success and breaking it down. Like the definition of success is the achievement of a purpose or an aim.

And so that's something that can't happen accidentally. And so if success to you is getting into college, you can't do that by accident. And if success to you is good grades, that doesn't happen by accident, and some really helpful tips and tricks that I got were to sit down and list your accomplishments, big and small.

Just sit down and write them down, whether with a pen and paper or your phone, but I found a lot more success, like writing it, like handwriting it, because as this list got longer and longer and longer, I was like, wait a minute. Maybe it's not a mistake that I'm here. And then saving list, you know, keeping it nearby so that when you're feeling those things, when you're feeling that overwhelmed, when you're feeling like I don't belong here, going back and looking at that list and saying, well actually, this isn't a mistake. This is something that I've worked for. 

It can often sometimes even be as simple as talking to someone new, which creates a networking opportunity — that can be considered a success if your goal was, was to create new connections. Or for me, when I was first applying to college, filling out the application was a win for me because college was like, never on my radar ever, not even when I was in high school. So applying was a win for me, getting in was a win for me, and really kind of cataloging those things in an objective way. So when you come back to look at that list, you're like, oh. And also naming that voice that's in the back of your head, like that voice it's like, you don't belong here.

Name them. Mine is Kim. So when Kim tells me that you don't belong here, I'm like shut up Kim, because it makes it easier to like, if I was working retail and some lady was coming in and being annoying and I could just be like, Ugh Kim, you know, and roll my eyes and move beyond it. So naming that voice, those are some of the things that I use to move forward.

STEFANO CONTRERAS: 

And when you're listing out your goals and, you know, sort of having that moment when trying to overcome imposter syndrome, what was that like emotionally? Like, was that a very hard thing to be as vulnerable and honest with just yourself? Is that a very hard thing to do? 

AMBER LAYNE: 

Yeah, I actually just got chills when you asked me that, because that was a really, really emotional thing for me. And I find that culturally, something that a lot of us do is we do a lot of negative self talk. Like if we bump into something or we drop something, we'll be like, Oh I'm so dumb. And like, well what is that, why do we do that? Why do we say those things about ourselves? Especially if you're just like dropping something. That's just human, right?

And so sitting down and listing out those accomplishments was actually having to confront some low self esteem. And having to really be aware of what it is that I consider an accomplishment versus like what my parents would consider an accomplishment versus what a professor would consider an accomplishment.

It had to be about what I considered an accomplishment. And when I kind of let go of those other people's expectations, of everybody's expectations, and really focusing on my own expectations, it was really cathartic and I cried a lot. But it was also maybe recognizing that this, you know, kind of low self esteem that was tying into my imposter syndrome really had no base besides me giving too much weight to other people's ideas of what success was or of what an accomplishment was, because for some people, filling out a college application is just like, it's just what you do. But for me, that was scary because it was having to confront a lot of the academic mediocrity that I was feeling because I didn't perform my best in high school. I was just like, I'm here for a good time not a long time, and did just enough to pass. And so having to confront a lot of that, and there was a lot of regret tied up in that, like, could I have gotten more scholarship money if I had tried harder? And just having to let go of all of that and really focus on me and what I thought my accomplishments were.

STEFANO CONTRERAS: 

Did you ever feel intimidated reaching out to others to discuss those fears? 

AMBER LAYNE: 

Yes. Authenticity and vulnerability is a practice. So I had always, I've always been soft. I'm one of those people that people tell to us toughen up, you're too sensitive, whatever. And then I was at a leadership conference and I told a young woman there who was serving as a national officer for this honor society — her name is Alexa Greer, she's an incredible person — I told her that her speech was really moving to me. And as I said, this, you know, tears started to well up for me. And I said, I'm so sorry for crying. And she reached out and she touched my arm and she said, your vulnerability is a strength. She said, being able to be soft and vulnerable and so in touch with your emotions in a world that exists to make you hard and to make you tough — that is the strongest thing about you. And I cried the rest of the trip, because this thing that I had been so self-conscious about and nervous about letting other people see was, in an instant, totally reframed in my head as being something that was a strength and something that made me strong. And being able to really draw on that experience makes being vulnerable easier. And it's especially something that I draw a lot of strength from now when I'm in a situation where another person is apologizing for their emotions or is apologizing for the way they feel, because how, being vulnerable is a practice; it's not something that everybody's like, yes, I'm an open book.

And so having to be vulnerable with other people about those emotions, it takes time. And you know, you want to make sure it's someone who's not going to belittle you for those things, or who's going to tell you, like you need to toughen up. And I think that that's why it's important to be vulnerable and to practice being vulnerable, because then other people know that you're a safe person that they could say, I'm really struggling with this thing. And then you can say, Oh that's imposter syndrome. Because a lot of times having a name for it makes it easier to come to terms with and move beyond. 

STEFANO CONTRERAS: 

Thank you so much for sharing that with me.

You are a first year success coach at the first year success center at ASU. Tell me a little bit about that. 

AMBER LAYNE: 

Yeah. Um, it's actually a really, really incredible place. So it's totally free. It's a service for ASU students and we have student coaches. So what that is, is we're also a student, usually they're your same major or your same college, or, um, if you're a transfer student, they're a transfer student. And they're someone that you can go to and talk about whatever you want. And it's not counseling, it's not therapy, but it's a really great place to come in and say, Hey, you know, I don't really know what I want out of college, can you help? Or, I really want this out of my college experience, whether that's a 4.0, internships and professional connections, or whether that's, you know, I'm here for a good time, not a long time. How do I find clubs? How do I make friends? How do I do these really fun things and have that glamorized Hollywood college experience? Okay. So what makes it really unique is that it's student led. So what you come in and say you want to talk about, or what you're struggling with — that's what we talk about. Versus if you go in and talk to an academic adviser, they have a plan for what you should be doing. Your professors have a plan of what you should be doing. Your TAs have a plan of what you should be doing. And so we're really one of the only services on campus where you can go and say, this is the thing that I want to work on.

And we're really kind of a built in accountability partner to make sure that you've got someone who is there to support you and cheerlead for you, no matter what your goals are.

STEFANO CONTRERAS: 

For The State Press, I'm Stefano Contreras.


Reach the reporter at scontr16@asu.edu or follow @contrerastefano on Twitter.

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