Why College Freshmen May Feel Like Impostors On Campus

Psychologist Greg Walton has found that a simple intervention can help many students get the most out of college. The trick is in helping students see that setbacks are temporary, and often don't have larger implications.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Tens of thousands of freshman have just finished their first month in college. They've signed up for classes, met a bunch of other people and, if history is any guide, asked themselves a question: What am I doing here? Everyone else is smarter and better adjusted than I am. And for some, that question totally changes the college experience, may even cause them to drop out, which is why a researcher was determined to intervene. He told his story to NPR's Shankar Vedantam, who's here to tell it to us. Hi, Shankar.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. So, what did he do?

VEDANTAM: Well, Greg Walton was looking at this fact that all students go through difficulties when they get to college, Steve. But some students look at the problems that they're facing and they draw global conclusions from them. They say this is not just a professor giving me a bad grade or someone not sitting next to me in the cafeteria. This reflects that fact that I am not ready for college, or I shouldn't be in this college at all.

INSKEEP: Because they're in this sensitive moment, and they're judging themselves.

VEDANTAM: And they feel like impostors. So, Greg Walton - who, by the way, is a psychologist at Stanford - here's how he explained it to me.

GREG WALTON: If you're walking around in an environment, asking yourself whether you belong, when something bad happens - if you get criticized, if you feel excluded or lonely - to you, in your head, you might think that it means that you don't belong, in general, in that school.

INSKEEP: And that is the moment at which you might, I suppose, socially withdraw, or just withdraw from school.

VEDANTAM: That's right. And Walton said that some minority students and some women were especially affected by this. You already feel like you don't quite belong or you stick out in class, and now you get negative feedback. And you connect the two things together, and now you feel like you really don't belong.

INSKEEP: And that's interesting, because you're suggesting that women or minorities might feel more like outsiders. There's a lot of different kinds of people that might feel like outsiders. I went to a university in eastern Kentucky, and there were a lot of people from small towns that just seemed overwhelmed by that experience in the same way you're describing.

VEDANTAM: That's exactly right, Steve. Because I think what Walton is talking about is that some students are just going to be more vulnerable than others. And he conducted an intervention to see if he could actually reverse this. He brought a bunch of freshmen in. He told them this is what earlier students who've been to this college have experienced. They went through difficult periods of time and then things got better over time, and they heard ostensibly from these earlier students who said when I first got to college, I didn't have any friends, but I realized it takes some time to make friends. And in the long run, everything worked out great. And then he had the freshmen themselves tell stories about how their own experiences matched this pattern.

INSKEEP: OK. So, all they really did was find out they're not the only people in the world who are having these feelings. How much of an effect did that have on them?

VEDANTAM: It had a remarkable effect. It improved the academic performance and well-being of students who went through the intervention compared to students who didn't go through the intervention. And what was most remarkable, Steve, is that the effects of this one-time intervention lasted the next three years of these college students' lives.

INSKEEP: Just from having, what, one brief session?

VEDANTAM: It seems remarkable, Steve. And I asked Walton this, because I said it's hard to imagine that this one session could have had such a big effect. He explained to me that he didn't think, actually, it was the intervention that made the difference. The reason these students did well in college is because they studied hard, they worked hard and they did well. That's why they did well. All the intervention was doing was it was removing a barrier inside their heads, this barrier that made them see a local setback as some kind of a global statement on themselves.

WALTON: What the intervention did was it prevented students from feeling that they didn't belong in general when they had negative experiences. You can then imagine how if you're feeling less vulnerable to threats, you are better able to connect with other people, to peers, to teachers and build the kinds of relationships that actually sustain performance over a long period of time.

VEDANTAM: You know, Walton gave me another analogy, Steve. He said this intervention might be like engine oil in a car. The engine oil doesn't actually make the car go forward, but it removes some of the friction inside the car and helps the engine run more smoothly, and that's what helps the car move forward.

INSKEEP: OK. So, did the young people who had the engine oil applied, did they themselves sense the difference after this intervention?

VEDANTAM: Here's the interesting thing, Steve. When Walton went back and talked with these students later on, they didn't even remember that they had done this three years ago. And Walton was very careful, when he brought them in in the first place, not to signal that he was actually doing an intervention. He dressed up the intervention as saying you're going to be helping future freshmen deal with coming to college. So, he placed them in a role where they were seeming like they were helping others rather than being in need of help themselves.

INSKEEP: Oh, because if you just went directly at them, it's one more adult giving you one more homily. But this way, the message just sneaked up on them.

VEDANTAM: Yeah, and not just that. When you bring students in and say we're doing an intervention to help you, what's the message you're sending those students?

INSKEEP: You're messed up.

VEDANTAM: You're messed up, and you need help. And I think Walton's point is if schools want to apply this intervention, it needs to be done with some subtlety, or it could backfire.

INSKEEP: Shankar, thanks very much.

VEDANTAM: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Shankar Vedantam. You can follow him on Twitter @HiddenBrain. You can follow this program, as always @MorningEdition and @NPRInskeep, as well as NPRGreene.

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