Speaking authentically within higher education

How can we foster a sense of authenticity within ethnically minoritised students? Dr Zoe Moula, Teaching Fellow at the School of Public Health, aims to raise awareness of how we can promote a more inclusive educational environment and understand the barriers which can affect a student’s sense of authenticity within higher education.

The underrepresentation of ethnically minoritised students at university, and even more so in medicine, often results in identity suppression in order to ‘fit in’. Yet, this can lead to increased anxiety, and interferes with a student’s ability to succeed academically and professionally.  Societal, structural and institutional factors, such as racism, discrimination and socioeconomic inequalities may all play a part into why a student may not be able to express their true self.  It is therefore crucial that any effort to promote Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) must also protect and promote a student’s sense of authenticity.

Authenticity has been defined as the extent to which our actions are congruent with our beliefs and desires, despite external pressures. Being authentic can improve students’ wellbeing and enhance the medical student-patient communication and care, with resultant impacts on patient safety and health outcomes.

In this ASME/GMC-funded project, we conducted 20 semi-structured interviews aiming to explore:

  • What are the students’ experiences of being their authentic self in higher education, and within the medical school at Imperial?
  • What learning and teaching strategies are needed to enable students to become their authentic self?

We found that the most important barriers to students’ authenticity were previous experiences of discrimination, microaggressions and/or racism, leading to fear of being discriminated against again if students expressed their authentic self. The lack of diversity, cultural awareness and representation in the medical school were also fundamental barriers. For some students, being authentic was perceived as contradictory to being professional, especially in medicine where students felt that they must dress, speak, and act in particular ways. As such, authenticity was perceived as a risk that could damage one’s reputation.

Better Representation

It was clear that in circumstances where students could be their real self, they felt happier, safer and were better able to create stronger relationships with peers and members of staff. Students’ societies were among the safest spaces for students to express their real self. Amongst the most important recommendations was the need for EDI training to become compulsory, and to be delivered by facilitators with lived experiences of discrimination. Similarly, students needed to see better representation within the faculty, role models they can relate to and aspire to, such as Black Professors. Providing students with support during the first year is especially important, as students expressed higher prevalence of anxiety, imposter syndrome and lack of belonging. Support could include mentoring, wider access initiatives, training on how to overcome imposter syndrome, better signposting for wellbeing support, and social events where students can share their personal stories.

To ensure that the students’ voices were valued and heard across the medical school, we developed three short films titled ‘Speaking authentically’ based on the interviews conducted. These aim to raise awareness of strategies and policies that can foster a more inclusive educational environment, such as better reporting mechanisms, wider participation initiatives and the importance of cultural humility.

Stories of authenticity: Being me
Stories of authenticity: Belonging
Stories of authenticity: Supporting me

Dr Zoe Moula is a Teaching Fellow at the School of Public Health. As a research fellow in MEDIC, she is currently collaborating with national and international institutions on research projects related to health coaching; identity formation; inclusion and diversity in medical education.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.