Faculty Q&A

– On the Outside Looking In –

We asked Shannon McClain about the psychological stress afflicting students of color and other minorities on U.S. college campuses.

TU’s Center for Student Diversity fosters inclusion, collaboration and relationship building. Its units include: African American Student Development; Asian Pacific Islander/Latino Student Development; Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Student Development; Student Success Programs; Women’s Resources and Campus Ministries.

– Why do so many racial and ethnic minorities experience psychological distress on predominantly white campuses? –

Transition to college is stressful for all students, but students of color on predominantly white campuses are coping with additional stressors, such as racial tensions involving peers or instructors and sometimes environmental isolation or stigmatization. Most commonly we’re seeing racism occur in more subtle or unintentional behaviors called microaggressions—brief exchanges that send denigrating messages to persons from stigmatized groups. 

– Can perceived bias lead to mental-health issues? –

Absolutely. Research suggests an association between perceived discrimination and diminished emotional and psychological well-being. Perceived bias can create or exacerbate psychological stress.

– What are impostor feelings? –  

Impostor feelings are particularly relevant for those who experience academic success—good students. The problem is that they don’t internalize their success; they feel like intellectual frauds. This concept was originally applied to white professional women in the workplace. There’s new research examining how impostor feelings are affecting students of color. 

– Why does college present more adjustment challenges for black men? –

First of all, black males are grossly underrepresented at four-year institutions. Being in an environment where not many people look like you can decrease your sense of belonging. Black men are more likely to perceive discrimination and report more difficult relations with earlier schooling, and these experiences can have implications for college. A study we recently published suggests black males experience heightened mistrust of their professors.

– Are Asian students—often stereotyped as “model minorities”—hurt by these high expectations? –

There’s a misconception that positive stereotypes are harmless; psychological research is debunking that. My colleagues and I found that among African American, Latino and Asian American students, Asian Americans reported the highest level of impostor feelings. Higher levels of impostor feelings are linked to increased anxiety and depressive symptoms. The “model minority” stereotype can be a real burden for some students.

– How is a muslim student’s situation comparable to or different from other minorities? –

We’ve seen a rise in Islamophobia since 9/11. Every stigmatized group has its own stressors, above and beyond what other students experience. Those who are visibly Muslim, such as women who wear the hijab, may face verbal and physical threats based more on religious affiliation than race or ethnicity.

– What problems do LBGT students confront? –

LGBT students are living in a world where same-sex marriage is legal, but they’re still stigmatized. These students continue to experience subtle or outright slights based on sexual identity. And, depending on where they live, they can still be fired because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The biggest strides are needed on behalf of transgender individuals—there’s a great lack of understanding and empathy. 

– How can educators identify students who need help adjusting to the academic and social demands of college? –

If a student is doing poorly in my class, I don’t assume it’s lack of motivation. I look for changes in mood or behavior, whether the student seems isolated or is performing worse academically.

Taking time to reach out, being curious and forming a connection is really important.

 – Are there programs that have helped to alleviate the stress these students face every day?–

There has been exciting research on some campuses where psychologists use special interventions to improve the experience for students of color. They’re called “stealthy interventions” because the students aren’t singled out as needing special help—they’re given to everyone. On one campus, psychologists attempted to alleviate students’ isolation by bringing in older peers to normalize concerns about belonging in a college environment. This simple intervention had a significant impact for first-generation students of color, in particular.

– How can racial/ethnic minorities support one another?– 

Students of color need to have a space where they feel less isolated and can meet others who share their on- and off-campus experience. Friendships or participation in organizations such as TU’s Center for Student Diversity or the Black Student Union can help these students feel valued and respected. 

– When students have a supportive and encouraging on-campus environment, are they less equipped to deal with the harsh realities of the off-campus world? – 

I don’t think that’s the case. There’s evidence that a supportive campus environment increases the odds that students will graduate, and that in itself is especially critical for students of color. Often their families have prepared them for what they may face in the off-campus world. They learn the tools in the context of a loving and supportive environment, and they’re prepared to deal with discrimination later on.

Shannon McClain, assistant professor in TU’s Department of Psychology, teaches upper-division and graduate courses. Her areas of expertise are multicultural issues in therapy, and treatment of mood and anxiety disorder in college students. She examines how social identities and culture impact psychosocial functioning, including mental health, learning and development. Within this area, her research has addressed cultural factors such as racial socialization, racial and ethnic identity, race-related stress, and impostor feelings.