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College Administrator Helps First-Gen Hispanic Students Overcome ‘Imposter Syndrome’

Entering the collegiate world can be an overwhelming experience for many, particularly Hispanic and first-generation students. They can feel lost, confused, or simply out of place. Iris Torres, director, TRIO/Student Support Services (SSS) at Rowan College of South Jersey (RCSJ), has made it a priority to create a safe space for those individuals.

Torres, who is in her 12th-year as an employee at RCSJ, has been successful in helping students feel well-received, which in turn helps them achieve positive outcomes—in school and in life.

“I know what these students feel like—the imposter syndrome—like they don’t belong,” said Torres, who experienced her own challenges as a first-generation, Hispanic student while earning her degree in Business Administration at Iona College.

According to, “People who struggle with imposter syndrome believe that they are undeserving of their achievements and the high esteem in which they are, in fact, generally held. They feel that they aren’t as competent or intelligent as others might think—and that soon enough, people will discover the truth about them.”

“I do my best to get them to a place where they feel confident enough to ask the questions that they really want to ask but may be afraid to,” said Torres. “I try to make them feel like they belong. Because they do belong.”

Torres, who speaks three languages (English, Spanish, and Dutch), described some of the obstacles Hispanic students face while attempting to pursue a college degree.

“Many of [them] are from single parent, low-income households where they are the first in their family to attend college,” she explained. “In many traditional Hispanic households, it is an expectation that older, college-aged siblings work and contribute financially to the household or be caretakers for young siblings while the parent(s) work.

“Sometimes these students are made to feel guilty for pursuing an education, adding to the burden of struggling through their first year of college.”

Torres began working at the College in 2012 as a part-time research specialist. Subsequently, Torres became an administrative assistant in advisement and earned the title student development advisor with Las Vias, a program that was implemented at RCSJ in 2015. She held this position for four years until she elevated to the role of assistant director.

“Las Vias is a student support program born out of a grant that focused on improving the Hispanic student graduation rate. There was a big gap between Hispanic students graduating versus others. So, the goal was to improve that,” Torres said.

Torres was an integral part of the team, including Diana Appel, Dr. Maud Goodnight, and April Gomez, that initiated Las Vias at RCSJ. “We used the funding that we received from a Title V grant to develop the program and recruit all the students,” she added. “We established all the policies and procedures for the program.”

Las Vias has been a huge success. “We were able to make a name for the program not only on campus, but also throughout the community,” Torres said. “In a rapidly growing Hispanic population [in Cumberland County], it was seen as a real opportunity to help the incoming freshmen, these first-generation Hispanic students who didn’t have the opportunities the average student had.”

As director of TRIO/SSS, Torres, who is also co-chair of the RCSJ Hispanic Advisory Board, her job duties include overseeing services to students, ensuring grant goals are met while leading SSS staff, and meeting budgetary constraints.

Torres has also been at the forefront of bringing awareness to the reality that RCSJ is an Hispanic-serving Institution (HSI). She has been a powerful voice in helping educators, administrators, community members, realize the value of the College’s HSI designation including how it helps RCSJ–Cumberland students effectively bridge the gap from a community college to four-year institutions.

“We received the Title V grant because we are Hispanic-serving. Being Hispanic-serving means that more than 25-percent of our student population is Hispanic,” she said. “We needed to zero in on that and provide them with the opportunities they needed to overcome the challenges they had.”

These grants, Torres noted, not only help Hispanic students, but the College as a whole.

“The Title V grant paid for and piloted the Starfish Early Alert system, a retention tracking system that allowed for documented interactions between students, professors, and advisors,” she said.

“Instructors use the system to alert advisors to connect with students and address any issues they might have. This process was adopted by both the academic and student services sides, increasing overall academic engagement through improved communication across the campus.”

Additionally, said Torres, programs like Adelante Juntos and Gear-UP adopted the framework available through the grant, that provides peer mentors with “extensive training and leadership skills,” as well as “students with support in navigating their first year of college.”

Torres’s student-centered approach has helped her gain the utmost respect from colleagues.

“Iris has been an exceptional partner in serving our students,” said Nathaniel Alridge Jr., who supports the administration, faculty, and student services in his daily work. “Whether attending interventions or acting as an effective translator for our bilingual students, Iris has consistently answered the call to support and serve.

“Iris is sincerely concerned and interested in the lives of our students and their success … I believe when students are successful, for Iris, it serves and stands for her success as well. Words, such as selfless, dedicated, and concerned help paint the portrait of Iris Torres’s service to our students.”

College alumni were more than happy to express their gratitude for Torres’s guidance.

“She helped me with applying to RCSJ, how to register for classes and knowing how the college works,” said David Bravo, who received his Business Administration/Entrepreneurship diploma recently.

“Iris is nice, and she helps all the students. She is just really a great person and I know she really cares about a lot of people.”

“Iris was always a great support and saw that I could continue to do greater things beyond the classroom. Her encouragement was one of many that helped push me to continue my education and serve the community today,” said Shoanne Seijas, membership and programs manager for the South Jersey Cultural Alliance, and 2017 graduate from the Cumberland campus.

“Ms. Torres is a strong and kind woman that is ready to take care of what needs to be done whether that’s at work, her community, or her family.”

“I like to think that I can be a resource for these students, that they can come and talk freely to someone who’s been through the process and understands the process,” she said. “I tell students help is here. I make sure they know they have someone on their side who wants them to succeed and will do all I can to help them along the way.

“Our goal is to get them to the point of graduating and moving on so they can expand their horizons and become what they set out to be.”