There is one thing that all McGill students can agree on: McGill is an extremely challenging school. While the degree of difficulty varies between courses and programs, it is safe to say that it is nearly impossible to find a truly easy class that requires minimal work. This academic rigour, mixed with a highly intelligent student body, can cause students to experience imposter syndrome. Feelings of inadequacy in comparison to their peers can prompt students to question their acceptance or accomplishments at McGill. Although McGill students differ in their experiences of imposter syndrome, it is particularly prevalent amongst transfer students.
“Imposter syndrome is when someone doesn’t feel worthy of their achievements and feels nervous, particularly before they speak, in front of other people,” Sarah Henning, licensed psychologist, said. “It gets highlighted when people receive an award or receive acceptance into a new and rigorous setting.”
In most cases, students transfer schools because their experiences at their past university did not work out for one reason or another. Whether this is due to academics, tuition fees or other social factors at their previous university, students make a conscious and life-altering choice to transfer to a new school and acclimate to a new environment for a second time.
McGill’s lack of programming specific to transfer students still unfamiliar with the school can contribute to imposter syndrome. While McGill runs an orientation for transfer students, historically, this program has been only an hour-long non-interactive lecture focussing on transfer credits. While the session provides important information, it can be both overwhelmingly broad and surface-level, consisting of direct screenshots and slides from the McGill website.
Not only does this orientation fail to cover the necessary information on how to navigate the university from a student perspective, it also does not seek to introduce transfer students to their peers.
Gilbert Lin, manager of Campus Life & Engagement (CL&E) at McGill, explained in an interview with The McGill Tribune that the reason behind the structure of this session is to ensure students understand credit requirements for graduation.
“We understand that there are a lot of activities going on on campus, and we do not want to keep students any longer than necessary,” Lin said. “The transfer program is organized the way it is because of the academic rigour at McGill. Our first priority in this session is to introduce the specific credit requirements for transfer students, which we know is often different from other students, and so we want to make sure we cover that before touching on other information.”
Lin replaced Leslie Copeland, the former manager of CL&E, last year. Lin said that he had increased the duration of the transfer orientation in an attempt to put more emphasis on building friendships. The transfer orientation, however, is still only one event and students do not receive any additional, long-lasting support throughout their first year. While CL&E offers great programs such as The Buddy Program, The Student Matching Program, and The First Friend program, which pair incoming first years with upper year students, no CL&E initiative is aimed at supporting and connecting transfer students.
Before Lin took on the role, there was no reception during the orientation event for students to meet, and there are still no specific Facebook entering class pages or social media groups for transfer students to connect.
Mahler Meyerrose, U2 Arts, transferred to McGill last year from St. Lawrence University. Reflecting on her experience in the transfer program, Meyerrose explains how the whole process was quite jarring.
“During the transfer session I was sitting next to a bunch of grad students and PhD students,” Meyerrose said. “The program is not at all just undergrads. I thought it was really weird how it was such a mixed group of students.”
While this experience alone could cause a transfer student to feel isolated, confused, and disoriented, once classes begin and the add/drop period ends, students are buried in work and must begin to learn the social norms of McGill while attempting to keep up with academic expectations. In this process, it is quite easy for students to not only feel different from their classmates due to their unique educational background, but also to feel confused as to how to access the many resources listed online. Without other peers to relate to due to the lack of a transfer student community, it is understandable that students find themselves doubting their intellect and feeling alone at such a large university.
This experience hits quite close to home because three years ago, I transferred to McGill from Northeastern University. While I could not be happier today that I transferred, it would be a lie to say that my first year at McGill was easy.
Not only was it hard to make friends during the first couple of months, but I also struggled to learn the ins and outs at McGill. After leaving the transfer students session three years ago, I remember feeling like I was simply a statistic in the eyes of the orientation leader, as if she was just there to make sure that we could swiftly graduate from the school we just enrolled in. From not knowing what to respond when someone asked what residence I was in, to being unsure how to maneuver add/drop at a new university, my first year at McGill feels like a blur.
Looking back at how I felt during these first couple of months, I remember struggling to find a way to describe my feelings. I was not embarrassed by the fact that I transferred, but I did feel a need to “fit in” with what I always considered “real” McGill students. I was also trying, to the best of my ability, to adjust to the demands of McGill courses, not feeling bright enough to engage with my peers.
In retrospect, I understand that I was experiencing imposter syndrome. In navigating my transfer, I would have appreciated help from McGill through either a more comprehensive transfer programming or more guidance. While I understand that there are mental health resources available through the Student Wellness Hub and the Healthy Living Annex at the university, at the time, I was unaware that this feeling was abnormal.
Many resources, such as the American Psychology Association and the Harvard Business Review, detail the best way to overcome this syndrome: To begin talking about it with others. For transfer students, this would likely be much easier amongst themselves, allowing them to feel a sense of community amongst 27,000 undergraduates. But without a robust support system offered by the university, this community is unlikely to emerge.
“I know for me, whenever I feel this way, I know it helps to talk to my colleagues and they usually reassure me that this feeling is normal, and can go away,” Henning said.
Moving forward, the McGill Orientation Program should consider these factors when introducing new and different students to the McGill community. In providing support throughout the first year, or even the first semester, the McGill Orientation Program could ease the feelings of imposter syndrome for transfer students and create an inclusive transfer student community.