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A professor standing in front of a chalkboard shakes a student's hand.

Professors should make students feel welcome in class, not just on the first day but every day.

More and more, it’s become common for people to go back to school later in life after being in an established career. The increased availability of online programs has made it possible for many adults to fulfill the lifelong dream of advancing their education. But, as those who have done it know, it’s not an easy decision to return to or invest in education. There are fears that can get in the way, and one of the common barriers to returning to school is impostor syndrome. Impostor syndrome leads to self-doubt, financial doubt and other struggles that keep students from completing degrees. One of my common thoughts while pursuing a degree was, “What if I fail to graduate and just end up wasting the tuition money?”

I know these fears all too well. I struggled with impostor syndrome throughout my higher education experience, especially when I decided to go for a doctorate. I constantly battled with thoughts of not having the time to study because I had a full-time job and a family. I wasn’t in a position to quit my job or reduce my hours. How would I be able to balance work, school and family life? I also thought perhaps I was taking an unnecessary financial risk by going back to school.

I grappled with these questions and feelings, and they are the same kinds of questions I see others struggling with. My experience shows neither impostor syndrome nor the uncertainties that come with going back to school should stop you. You can absolutely succeed as a student, an employee, and as a parent.

My journey toward my doctorate was anything but smooth. I applied to a program, only to be turned down. This rejection validated my feelings of not being smart enough, and I tried to give up on my dream. I spent another year wishing and self-doubting. After that year, I decided to give it another go.

This time I applied to and was accepted into Maryville University’s online doctor of education in higher education leadership program. The flexibility and structure of the accelerated program was a big part of my decision to go because it gave me the ability to balance all of my responsibilities.

Professor Support

Being accepted to the program did not make my imposter syndrome go away. I continued to struggle with defeating thoughts, wondering if I was smart enough to meet the expectations. I hit what felt like a brick wall when I received feedback on my first assignment. My professor wrote, “This is not doctoral-level writing.” Every feeling of inadequacy rushed into my mind, and I knew I had wasted time and money, placing an unnecessary burden on my family by going back to school. Because of these feelings, I immediately emailed my professor to let her know I’d be dropping out of the program. Luckily for me, within minutes of receiving that email, my professor called me. In that call, she said my writing wasn’t supposed to be at doctoral-level yet, and it was her job to get me there. She encouraged me, and asked me to trust the process.

My professor’s commitment to support me was enough to keep me in the program, and, though my self-doubt never fully went away, she was absolutely right. I could trust the process.

Over the next 32 months, I worked hard, trusted my faculty and followed the process. At the end, when it came time for me to defend my dissertation, the same professor who had initially pointed out my writing needed work said about my dissertation, “Dr. Stoddard, this is beautifully written.” My writing abilities developed to be doctoral level, and I had been acknowledged as a peer. This program, and those who taught me, changed my life.

Paying It Forward

I share my story because as an educator I see my own students struggle with the same fears and doubts I experienced. Sometimes they email me with life struggles, feeling like they need to drop out. In response, I do everything I can to show the same compassion my professor showed to me, and I encourage each one to keep at it and trust the process.

As an academic administrator, I also work with individuals who wish to go back to school for a degree but are hesitating due to self-doubt. I get it. I’ve been there. The biggest mistake would be to not try. Also, current students should be reminded to not drop out without first talking to a professor, an adviser or someone else who is dedicated to seeing them succeed. Impostor syndrome, or any other fear, should not keep anyone from reaching their potential!

College and university faculty and staff members are increasingly invested in helping students succeed. Many institutions are being held accountable for student outcomes, and their success is tied to student success. The model at Maryville University of St. Louis included all of my professors and a student support adviser who regularly checked in to make sure I was succeeding.

Retention Actions

If you’re a faculty member, or if you interact with students, small changes will go a long way toward helping you retain students struggling with imposter syndrome. When I meet with my team to discuss goals for retention and graduation, I ask each program to identify actions they can take to connect with students. A few things have made a huge impact.

  1. Help students connect socially with you and with one another. Students with imposter syndrome need human connection. I did. I needed someone (often many others) to encourage me, and to help me see I was doing things the right way. Students need to lean on others when they struggle. Social interaction gives them support and it gives them an opportunity to be the support when their classmates are struggling. Students who share struggles with students help one another feel normal. Also, if students are connected to faculty, they will be more inclined to reach out for help.
  2. Offer faculty support in the classroom, out of the classroom, and at a level the student needs. This is a critical practice. Support can’t just come when the student reaches out because it might be too late. It’s important to praise progress and effort, not just completed work, with high marks. Also, be mindful of the many competing priorities of students, and help them know how to schedule schooling. Many who have imposter syndrome struggle with thoughts similar to mine: How can I be a student, a dad, an employee, a volunteer, and a husband all at the same time? These thoughts are overwhelming, and students need help identifying ways to be successful in all of it.
  3. Give students community and industry connections. My team sees a lot of success with this one as they work on projects for nonprofit organizations and other community resources. Students report feeling a greater connection to what they are studying. It gives them purpose, and they often get to turn their struggles into a passion project to help those less fortunate than them. Students will feel they matter to the project and to the people benefiting from the project. Feeling connected to something bigger will help students with imposter syndrome feel like they belong.
  4. Create a welcoming classroom culture. A classroom culture exists for both brick and mortar classrooms and online classrooms. Students need to feel a genuine welcome from their faculty … not just on the first day of class, but every day. When they aren’t in class or online, they need to know they were missed. A classroom culture should have empathy and care for students as the top two characteristics. There should be laughter, open communication, and genuine stories of who you are as their faculty member. There should also be an emphasis on principles and guidelines rather than on classroom rules. Trusting students with imposter syndrome to make good decisions based on these principles and guidelines will help them feel their contribution is enough.
  5. Create a challenging curriculum with adequate resources to get through the work. This one hit my team hard, particularly in one program. The course is a four-credit-hour course with a lot to do to prepare for a major industry certification. The faculty wanted students to be successful, and in the process of creating assignments to help them pass the certification examination, they developed an overwhelming course. There were over 200 assignments to complete (anything from 1 question to 100 questions) with labs accompanying many of those assignments. Students who struggled with feelings of inadequacy felt overwhelmed with the “task list” of the course. To no surprise, this course had the highest dropout rate. It took work, but we identified the assignments truly meeting the course objectives, and we whittled the task list down to a manageable number. We are seeing more students stay in the course, and the industry certification pass rate has not suffered. This step has refined the process and given students something to trust. Trusting the process is critical for students with imposter syndrome.

These five actions are producing results for the faculty on my team. In a nutshell, the actions are all about focusing on students as individuals and connecting them to something bigger than their own thoughts of self-doubt. Really, to help a student who is struggling with imposter syndrome, we need to remember what it was like for us as struggling students, often with our own imposter syndrome. We need to have characteristics of empathy, care and concern for student success. We need to be willing to make that late night phone call I received, encouraging students to trust the process.

David Stoddard is director of technical and apprenticeship programs at Davis Technical College in Utah.

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