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Going for the Gold

Professors and students of color often feel a chronic sense of self-doubt, writes Jesús Ayala, who describes how he and his Latino students overcame impostor syndrome to win an Emmy.

September 17, 2021
 
Jesús Ayala
Professor Jesús Ayala coaches students Regina Yurrita and Dominic Torres to report on the arrival of the migrant caravan in Tijuana, Mexico
 

Last year, for the first time ever, eight students at California State University, Fullerton, won the prestigious College Television Award from the Academy of Television Foundation, the same body of judges that awards the prime-time and daytime Emmys. Otherwise known as a “student Emmy,” it was an outstanding achievement given that more than 374 entries were submitted from 112 colleges and universities nationwide. But it is even more remarkable because the university’s team was entirely composed of first-generation Latinos attending a Hispanic-serving institution.

It was a moment for celebration but one that almost never happened. In fall 2019, I began teaching a new journalism class, Reporting on Minorities of the Southern Border. My goal was simple yet highly ambitious: to push students to their absolute limits, hoping some would produce award-winning work. I never had any doubts I could train my students to be Emmyworthy. After all, winning awards is what I was groomed to do during my tenure as a news producer at ABC News. As the recipient of numerous Emmys and Edward R. Murrow awards, I’ve thrived on competitive journalism. My students, I was certain, would also excel if given the right training and mentoring.

On the first day of the class, I shared my vision with an excited although visibly intimidated group of students. Afterward, one student came up to me and asked, “Do you really think we could compete at that level?”

“Of course I do,” I replied.

“But we didn’t go to the University of California, Berkeley, like you did, and no one has ever thought of us as winners until you arrived,” he protested.

His response stopped me in my tracks. I realized then just how daunting an uphill battle we were now facing. To succeed in any competition, you must believe you can win, but we were entirely off the mark.

At the same time, however, I understood his feelings all too well. I, too, was once a Latino student, often dismissed and underestimated. Also, just a year before, I personally had to overcome a crushing bout of impostor syndrome -- that strong feeling of inadequacy and chronic self-doubt that persists despite evident success, leading many of us to feel like frauds. Impostor syndrome affects about 70 percent of Americans, according to psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes, but it can take a particularly heavy toll on people of color.

My own silent battle with impostor syndrome began the first semester I started teaching. After a long and rewarding career as a journalist and television producer, I decided to transition into academe. On my first day, I was elated, but my excitement quickly turned into a feeling of inferiority. As my colleagues all went around the room and introduced themselves, I quickly became fixated on the fact that nearly 80 percent of them had doctorates. I was definitely a minority without that degree.

I also noticed that my white colleagues overwhelmingly dominated discussions during faculty meetings. I’m sure this was not intentional, but it didn’t necessarily help to create a welcoming environment for faculty members of color like me. I was just beginning my career in academe, and I already felt like a fraud and isolated. I quickly discovered you need a very thick skin in higher education, maybe even thicker than in television. Colleges and universities are elitist by design: four-year university versus community college, tenured versus nontenured, Ph.D. versus Ed.D., full-time versus adjunct, full professor versus associate professor versus assistant professor versus lecturer and so on. This feeling of “otherness” in academic settings can be particularly hard on professors of color who are oftentimes severely underrepresented; on average, out of every 100 full-time faculty members at four-year colleges, only five are Black and three are Latino.

I had an awful first semester. I now know, of course, that almost every professor has a hard time getting through their first term. In my case, however, the constant negative self-talk was so unbearable that I nearly quit. I had even drafted my resignation letter and was ready to send it to my boss at any moment.

But fate had different plans for me. That same week, I received an email from the news director at KMEX, the Univision affiliate in Los Angeles. I had recently mentored a student in producing a news feature, and the station loved it enough to air it. It would be only the first of many student productions that would go on to air on Univision.

Seeing those productions air on television reminded me I had an unusual opportunity to train students to produce professional work even before leaving college. That student’s story went on to win second place at the Broadcast Education Association’s Festival of Media Arts. That gave me the first positive feeling I had felt in months and the reaffirmation I desperately needed. It also gave me a needed insight: Why was I even trying to be anyone else in the first place, when my biggest strengths and assets were my distinct cultural and career background, including my nearly 20 years of professional experience? I realized I was feeling like a fraud while trying so hard to play the role of a scholar. I was desperately trying to fit in with my colleagues who held Ph.D.s, but it was inauthentic.

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I had learned a lot about how insidious impostor syndrome can be. If the feeling of inadequacy could be so paralyzing for a television veteran like me, with so many years of experience and numerous accolades under my belt, then I could only imagine how pervasive this self-doubt could be for my first-generation Latino students. No wonder they doubted that they could actually become Emmyworthy.

A 2017 study from the University of Texas at Austin published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology suggests the impostor phenomenon is particularly pervasive among students of color, and “in some cases can degrade the mental health of minority students, who already believe that prejudices and statistics are stacked against them.” Minority college students also said they often “faced discrimination and reported higher rates of depression and anxiety than their white peers.” The study’s findings led journalist Jolie A. Doggett to suggest that the best way to overcome an inferiority complex is by addressing it directly and still showing up. “Everyone needs to be aware of how imposter syndrome affects people of color and how it creates barriers,” she writes. “Increasing our representation in the places that have historically excluded us will not only benefit the institutions we infiltrate, but create an environment where we no longer feel like outliers.”

It hasn’t escaped me that if I had, in fact, quit after that first semester, there never would have been a border reporting course, and consequently, my students would have never achieved an Emmy win. In the end, I was fortunate to be able to recognize my own inner struggle with impostor syndrome and push through it. I decided to show up not only for myself, but also for my students -- so they would not continue to feel underestimated, underappreciated and unheard. It was very hard not to compare myself to my colleagues, but I simply focused on what I know how to do best: training students to be employable in the professional journalism world with practical, hands-on modalities and immersive experiences. And as the Texas study advised, I also held very open discussions about impostor syndrome in all my classes, and together we worked on tackling our feelings of inadequacy.

The students in my class continued to show up. And, ultimately, a group of them traveled to Tijuana to report on the arrival of a migrant caravan at the U.S.-Mexico border and other border issues, including the plight of deported veterans, family separation, border militarization and child sex trafficking. And, as a result of their work, they won the Emmy.

That was just one of the accolades they garnered. Collectively, they won 18 national collegiate journalism awards, including a Hearst award, an Edward R. Murrow award and multiple recognitions from the Associated Collegiate Press, the College Media Association, the Broadcast Education Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. As Doggett suggests, these victories will help to normalize our presence in the mainstream and further diversify the playing field for the next generation of students of color.

I look forward to training student Emmy winners for many years to come, but more importantly, I am committed to addressing the difficult questions surrounding race and ethnicity and how they lead to feelings of chronic self-doubt with my students. Both journalism and academe stand to benefit from this now more than ever.

In fact, teaching students to believe in themselves, even when no one else has, will probably end up being my greatest legacy as a professor. The student who told me he had never been viewed as a “winner”? He is now working at CNN in Washington, D.C., and has covered presidential briefings at the White House.

Bio

Jesús Ayala is a lecturer in the department of communications at California State University, Fullerton. He is an award-winning television news producer and the recipient of four national Emmys and seven Edward R. Murrow awards.

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