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CSULB's first-generation students overcome 'imposter syndrome'

Published December 3, 2020

The experiences of first-generation students are unlike any other group: They feel proud yet scared. Excited, but fearful to make a wrong decision. Isolated on campus. Alone in their concerns, worries and questions.

And while their high school achievements earned them a place at Cal State Long Beach, they don’t always feel they belong.

“It’s hard to reconcile when you are very much feeling that ‘imposter syndrome’ and trying to pull ourselves out of it,” said Dr. Cheryl Rock professor of food science and nutrition, who also was a first-generation student.

“It’s having those people around you to remind you that you are here, and you are meant to be here. That’s what our programs can do, that’s what your peers can do.”

Rock, faculty mentor of GenExcel, a pilot mentoring program for first-generation students, joined EOP Director Eduardo Leyva, Dr. Kerry Kilma, associate director of Assessment and Evaluation, and first-generation students to discuss their unique experiences during CSULB First-Gen Voices, a recent virtual panel. 

Three students shared how they overcame the challenges of being a first-generation student at Cal State Long Beach. 

aleandra guerreroAlejandra Guerrero, senior, sociology and International Studies

“The biggest obstacle I faced in being the first to go to college was not understanding how to navigate through the college system and feeling an intense pressure to succeed. 

Not only was I worried about the cost, I really didn’t have a clear direction for a career, and I didn’t have many adults to talk to about it. Higher education was a completely uncharted territory, and I found myself really having to put extra time into understanding the way to be successful.

I do think as a first-generation student I faced more scrutiny when choosing a major because I found myself worrying if my chosen career path would make me money rather than if it was something I was passionate about.

Even now, there are time I find myself having to convince family my sociology and International Studies degrees are going to lead me to a stable career path. They expect my major to directly lead to an occupation, but getting a higher education, in my eyes, is more about making yourself a well- rounded individual and gaining connections. I believe because they see me working hard and taking different internship opportunities while being a student, they have an easier time understanding how my education is leading me down a path to success.” 

jose raya perezJose Raya Perez, sophomore, business administration management

“For me, it has been really cool to be a first-generation student going straight to a university. It was a blessing because I could not believe it. I am an immigrant. I was born in Mexico and was climbing from the very bottom of the ladder – from not knowing the language, to researching for any type of help, to understanding the language to getting to a university. It got scarier and scarier as time went by.

I remember the first day I stepped foot on campus, and they were like ‘Oh, you have to choose your classes.’ I was like, oh dang, this is the real deal. We’re not playing around. It was scary. But as the first week went by, it just simmered down, and it got better as time progressed.

Then I had a friend who looked at my schedule who said, ‘Oh this is terrible.’ I started panicking and getting anxious. I needed to ask someone else, but I didn’t know who. So, I had to go through it blindfolded. I didn’t see where I was going.

Once I got through my first semester, I realized my schedule wasn’t terrible, it was actually pretty good.” 

cristy tranCristy Tran, first-year graduate student

“The biggest obstacle I faced, in relation to my family, was the disconnect that existed in our experiences. I spend most of my time doing schoolwork and studying, which my parents have thought is odd. However, because of the rigor of my courses and my extracurricular involvement, I feel the need to invest as much time as I do in my responsibilities.

I think the best part has always been to make my family proud. They always expect the best out of me, and I expect that of myself too. I am glad I could pave a better life for myself and my family.

The first few months of being in grad school I think was the first time I really felt the imposter syndrome. It’s the first time I have struggled a lot, and then I started questioning myself – did they make a mistake by letting me into their program? 

What kind of drew me out of that imposter syndrome was that they know who I am. They know my credentials. They know my achievements. They picked me because I am capable, and I will excel in this program.

Just keep believing in yourself and keep those reminders on hand when you are doubting yourself."