Ever since she tested "gifted" in fifth grade, junior Natalie Vasquez has tied her self-esteem to her intellectual success. She was considered a math prodigy throughout her time at Proviso Math & Science Academy in Chicago, but she struggled with the transition into college.
In high school, Vasquez, who now majors in communications studies, initially hoped to major in chemistry as pre-med. She enrolled in the STEM track of Bridge, a pre-orientation program that prepares incoming freshmen for success in school. Even though Bridge classes are taken pass or no-pass, Vasquez’s low scores discouraged her from pre-med. Confused about whether she belonged at Northwestern, Vasquez spent her first year with an undeclared major.
“I was so used to quickly grasping concepts and doing well in my classes,” Vasquez said. “Once I started getting those [low] scores – looking back now, they didn’t matter at all – I felt terrible about myself because I wasn’t doing as well as I wanted to.”
Like Vasquez, other students struggle with feeling inferior. Last week, Vice President for Student Affairs Patricia Telles-Irvin sent out an email announcing the decision to hire two new staff members for clinical support services and suicide screenings.
“The University’s approach to your wellness, particularly around mental health, is part of a broader strategy undertaken by Student Affairs in recent years to ensure we succeed in our mission to help you sustain a safe and healthy Northwestern experience,” Telles-Irvin said in the email. “It also comes at a time when national rates of suicide are rising. This is a public health emergency, and the number of students experiencing these issues is growing.”
The university has yet to determine an exact cause of the increase in mental health-related issues, but according to the CAPS 2017-2018 Annual Report, academic distress ranked the second “top presenting concern” behind general anxiety as self-reported by undergraduate students.
“It’s a common experience for gifted students at highly selective universities to feel out of place,” Eric Calvert, Associate Director for Northwestern’s Center for Talent Development, said. “They walk into a classroom of the best, brightest students and see these faculty with all of their awards, and feel like they don’t belong.”
Even though clinical psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes coined the term in 1978, the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders does not consider "impostor syndrome" an official diagnosis. The syndrome can manifest itself through a variety of illnesses such as general anxiety and depression. Clance and Imes initially defined impostor syndrome as “an internal experience of intellectual phonies” experienced by those with “outstanding academic and professional achievements.”
Sharmain Siddiqui, a first-generation, low-income student, built a particle detector for the Department of Homeland Security and conducted research on electromagnetic properties of the sun’s chromosphere for NASA at 15. Despite her impressive credentials, Siddiqui said she struggled fall quarter of her freshman year when she received a C in Calculus 220.
“It was an 8 a.m. class on a subject I already took in high school,” Siddiqui said. “I thought I didn’t need to show up or do a lot of work. Turns out I played myself.”
Siddiqui attributes her commitment to success to growing up in an Asian household. Her lawyer father and microbiologist mother received their degrees in their home country of Pakistan. Shortly followed by her mother, Siddiqui’s father first immigrated to the United States in search of racially unbiased educational opportunities (the Karachi law school system charges expensive fees to people whose families came from India during partition). Siddiqui said the combination of her gifted status and her parents stressing education as the most valuable thing in the world contributed to her Type A personality.
To prove her intelligence, Siddiqui said she took five classes winter quarter and spent all of her time in the library. Now studying South Asian studies, she combats her fear of failure by remembering that her marginalized identities influence her perceptions of success.
“For me, experiencing impostor syndrome is situational at this point,” she said. “I have enough self-love to understand that I deserve to be in the high places I’m at, but there will be situations that arise. Especially when it comes to academia because it’s this big, white cesspool of knowledge, entitlement and arrogance. When you’re a POC entering that space, you really have to work through all of your internalized racism to feel 100 percent comfortable in those spaces.”
SESP professor Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, Ph.D, has spent the last 30 years creating programs and writing about talent development for gifted children. She published a monograph on the subject that analyzed the vital difference between a fixed and growth mindset; gifted children with a fixed mindset require validation from others about their intelligence while those with a growth mindset consider obstacles a path to higher goals. Olszewski-Kubilius believes that gifted students fare better overall when they have a growth mindset and focus on developing their talents through a commitment to practice.
For gifted students, the pressure to live up to their label comes with lingering issues of self-image. For improved mental health, gifted children need to release the desire of being the smartest person in the room. Instead, they need to welcome failure as an opportunity for growth.
“If you’re focused on always demonstrating your ability relative to others or proving your giftedness, it becomes unsettling when you can’t do it,” Olszewski-Kubilius said. “That causes people to give up. Your mindset should be: ‘I’m in a bigger pond, there’s a lot of really talented people. I need to make progress on my own and learn from others.’ We don’t do kids a favor by not having them experience challenges. The only way you learn to rise to the challenge is if you have to cope with it.”
McCormick junior Alex Castro struggled with the transition in college because he said he didn’t understand how much work he had to put into his studies. At Alexander Graham Bell Elementary School in Chicago, non-gifted students (referred to as the “neighborhood kids”) were separated from gifted students, so he only spent time with the same 30 kids from first to eighth grade.
For years, his mother repeatedly told him that he should remember he was smart. Castro said that constant praise of his innate intelligence meant that he didn’t learn a healthy work ethic until he attended Lincoln Park high school as an International Baccalaureate student.
“For me, [growing up gifted] didn’t mean that I was suddenly better than anyone else,” Castro said when reflecting on his transition to high school. “It made me think I didn’t need to do as much work.”
Primarily due to academic-related stress, Castro took a a medical leave during the winter and spring quarters of his sophomore year. Now back on campus, he spoke highly of the break and said it forced him to learn how to balance academic responsibilities with self-preservation.
SESP sophomore Mark Settles first learned that someone would always be better than him when he went from public schools to the Dwight School in New York, an international private school that teaches pre-K to twelfth grade. Relinquishing his self-importance early on allowed him to have more reasonable expectations for himself. Settles advises that other gifted students do the same.
“People come to Northwestern with this air about themselves,” Settles said. “A lot of them are told they’re special their whole lives with no basis to back that up. You’re not the best, and you’re going to be fine.”