Online learning begets new forms of culture shock

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The transition to college comes with lots of novelty — living alone for the first time, exploring a new campus and meeting people from around the world. For students of color who come from diverse schools or communities, moving to college may also catalyze feelings of culture shock and impostor syndrome. Amid an online semester, the question of whether culture shock and impostor syndrome still affects students of color has certainly not been at the forefront of conversations.

At USC, a top-tier university where white students make up the largest population on campus,  students of color were not immune to the challenges of being underrepresented while in-person classes took place. Unfortunately, and perhaps unsurprisingly, being online for the fall semester has not relieved this challenge. Instead, culture shock and impostor syndrome have taken on new forms. 

Although USC classes now take place on a computer screen, the faces on the screen are still mostly white. Being online does not change the University’s demographics; it also does not change how being a student of color in a Zoom full of white students might feel. Because of the socioeconomic disparities between some students of color and white students, white students tend to have greater access to the internet, laptops and other luxuries. This is also why said students are usually more likely or capable of having their cameras on, having a quiet space to listen to lectures and speaking up the most in class.

A lack of diversity and representation on Zoom likely leads to the same emotions of culture shock that discourage students of color from participating in in-person lectures. Seeing an overwhelmingly white Zoom call can discourage Black and Indigenous students and students of color from turning on their cameras, attending the calls synchronously and maintaining the motivation to listen in class. Being online also does not change the fact that most professors are white, which further creates a barrier and disconnect between Black and Indigenous students, students of color and their teachers. And on a fully online platform, creating relationships is already difficult enough. 

In online schooling, feelings of impostor syndrome have not vanished either. Given the completely impersonal academic environment, isolation has likely, in fact, made it worse: Students are left with their own thoughts and are more susceptible to spiraling down the hole of self-doubt, with no buffer of support groups or face-to-face communication with other students who may be feeling the same way. Moreover, if students are struggling with the transition of a high school to college workload, being remote makes it difficult to form connections with classmates for help. 

Impostor syndrome goes beyond Zoom classes, though: Social media also fuels these emotions for students of color specifically those who are watching as classmates in Los Angeles are making friends, connections and experiencing college life. Experiencing this barrage of content while many Black and Indigenous students, students of color and low-income students are still at home also explains the disconnect between marginalized students and the University.

The truth is that in the digital age of online classes and social media, impostor syndrome and culture shock live on beyond in-person environments. It’s easy to ignore the realities of culture shock and impostor syndrome when everything is online, but this wishful thinking of looking the other way is coming at the expense of Black and Indigenous students, students of color and underrepresented students. 

There is no way to eliminate culture shock on a Zoom call when the USC student body is predominantly white, but by talking about it and validating these emotions, Black and Indigenous students and students of color may feel more comfortable on the Zoom calls to turn on their cameras and participate more often. The same could be said about impostor syndrome. The first step is acknowledging it and creating a space for students to talk about it without being judged. There must be an effort made on the part of the University to help students and share these emotions of impostor syndrome and culture shock — this way, perhaps students can begin to feel like USC’s online classes are a safe space to learn and create community.