young woman; photo by alex nemo via unsplash

Representation, Imposter Syndrome, and the Black College Experience: BHM Discussion with Student-Workers at the Center for Identity & Inclusion

February 15, 2021

The Center for Identity and Inclusion (CII) serves students, faculty, and staff from minoritized groups. In honor of Black History Month, we spoke with Ge’Swan Swanson, director’s assistant to Black Student Services, and Ajah Mejia, Mixed Heritage programing coordinator. Swanson and Mejia have been student-workers at the center for multiple years—and they’d like to spread the word about the resources they offer.

What Does CII Do?

Swanson, a biology major and political science minor, has worked at CII for four years as assistant to Omar Montgomery, MPA/MES, director of Black Student Services. What types of student resources are available at CII? “Where do I begin?” Swanson asked. “We are a networking hub in a sense. We help students navigate through the university system, provide someone to talk to, sponsor an array of ethnic clubs, and give students a place to be themselves with people who look like them from similar, yet diverse backgrounds.”

Mejia, who works as the Mixed Heritage Program coordinator, has been focused on intersectional programing that helps individuals in the Lynx community who don’t fall neatly into any one racial/ethnic category. An International Studies major and Ethnic Studies minor, Mejia is multiracial herself. “I identify as Creole Chicana,” she said. “I actually have those words tattooed on me, so my identity is something I hold very dear.”

With the help of the CII, Mejia has organized Split Stories, a series of presentations about the complexities of racial intersectionality. “Some of the things we’ve discussed before include multiracial imposter syndrome, raising multiracial children, pigmentocracy and colorism, hair politics, and unpacking Black Lives Matter from a mixed perspective,” Mejia said. The Split Stories events, which are open to all CU Denver community members, feature a presenter followed by moderated discussion periods.

The center sponsors varied programs throughout the year, including Healing Sessions and Black History Month events. CII can also connect students, faculty, and staff with clubs, affinity groups, and community resources that promote diversity and inclusion.

Sense of Belonging

Both Swanson and Mejia stated that the CII offers more than resources and events: The center is a place where minoritized groups can feel a sense of belonging. “One of the things Black students struggle with is being in settings with people who don’t look like them,” Swanson said. “A place where people truly understand the struggles their communities go through, including systemic problems like low income.”

Mejia also stressed the importance of community. “It has taken me years to become somewhat comfortable in my identity as a mixed person,” she said. “I found it extremely important to be able to provide a space where others can interact with their intersectionality and have non-toxic conversations where they can experience solidarity and further develop their own ideas of who they are and how they will continue to live.”

Swanson has been able to do well in college at least partly because of his connection to CII: “The sense of community is very important, because it becomes the backbone of your daily decisions in addition to what gives you purpose.”

Imposter Syndrome

CU Denver has a diverse student population: According to the latest University of Colorado Diversity Report, students of color compose 51% of all undergraduate students. Black/African American students represent 5.8% and students who identified as “More than one race” represent 5.9% of undergraduate students. These lower percentages may make some Black or multiracial students experience “imposter syndrome”—a feeling of self-doubt or perceived incompetence despite evidence that you are successful.

“Students of color can have a sense of imposter syndrome or having to be a model minority representing your entire group,” Swanson said. Working with Montgomery and other staff at CII has been empowering. “Seeing someone who has achieved high status despite adversity encourages people of color. It creates a mentality of ‘If they can do it, so can I.’ It’s very important to have that sort of representation in all aspects of an organization. If an institution is a firm believer in diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, take a look at its staff and student population, at who it recruits and retains,” Swanson said.

The feeling of being a fraud is further complicated for mixed-race students, who may experience multiracial imposter syndrome. “Growing up mixed, I was always interacting with monoracial individuals,” Mejia said. “There’s a lot of toxic gatekeeping in those communities; people who are multiracial have been upheld to this almost nonsensical standard.” Mejia explained that Black people might not consider her to be “Black enough” and Mexicans may not consider her “really Mexican.”

The Mixed Heritage Program was established for individuals who don’t clearly fit into the categories represented by the CII offices: American Indian Student Services, Asian American Student Services, Black Student Services, Latinx Student Services, Undocumented Student Services, and the Women & Gender Center.

Connecting & Intersecting

Switching to remote learning and working has made it more difficult for CII to reach students who might benefit from its services and programs. “Students are so burnt out these days from being on Zoom,” Swanson said. “Getting students connected to our office has been difficult, but we do what we can to ensure that students and faculty always have a place to call a home away from home.”

Mejia would like CII to welcome even more people in the CU Denver community. “There are many groups that are not represented within our center,” she said. “My hope is that the Mixed Heritage Program is able to host more conversations centered around intersectionality.”