You Can Succeed At College Once You Figure Out All The Little Things No One Tells You About
Tatum Tricarico didn't know she'd need to recruit a professor to help her get the accommodations she needed as a functionally blind student.
Sammie Zenoz didn't know she could get scholarships that would make it possible for her to attend her dream school.
Yvonne Chamberlain Marquez thought her housing was guaranteed, only to find out too late that having a daughter disqualified her.
These students eventually figured out what they needed to succeed in higher education, but not because they learned about it in high school, or because it was written down in any official handbook.
Many students eventually figure out what they need to succeed in higher education, but not because they learned about it in high school, or because it was written down in any official handbook. Instead, they succeed because they uncover resources and help that exist if only you know where to look.
The students featured in our ongoing Hidden Curriculum series successfully navigated higher education while faced with particular challenges because of their background and life circumstances.
"In a lot of ways, I just really fell flat on my face my freshman year," said Tricarico, who's now a graduate student.
Academics have a name for the often unspoken, sometimes murky set of skills and expectations that are intrinsic to thriving in a college environment: the hidden curriculum.
"It's a concept that sociologists use to uncover the unspoken or unwritten rules or norms that happen in school," said Vanessa Delgado a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Irvine. "Primarily I use [hidden curriculum] as a lens to understand how inequality can be generated in schools."
Aireale Rodgers, a doctoral candidate at the University of Southern California whose work focuses on equity in higher education, described it this way: "The hidden curriculum is the rules of the game that some people get the rulebook for and some other people don't."
'Hidden' From Whom?
These unwritten rules may be more familiar to some students than others, including first-generation college students and students of color who are underrepresented in higher education. The gap between students who have guidance navigating college and those who don't can starts to show up well before a student sets foot on a campus, said La'Tonya Rease Miles, who helped launch programs for first-generation students at the University of California Los Angeles and Loyola Marymount University.
"There can be some self doubt already," said Rease Miles, who was a first-generation student herself. "There can be, like in my case, high expectations from the family. You're the first and there might be a lot riding on you. And so sometimes that can preclude people from asking questions."
Rease Miles remembers not knowing that she could drop a class when starting out at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She "toughed it out" alone.
"I wish I could have explained that to my mom," she said. "I didn't want my mom to worry. And I knew she didn't know the answers anyway. So I just, like: grit, hard work, and figure it out. But wait, other people are doing better than me, you know, I'm just as smart. And that just would come up time and time again."
Delgado has interviewed dozens of children of Latino immigrants and found that their parents often don't have the practical knowledge to help their kids navigate college choices and applications because the U.S. college-going process is unique and unfamiliar to them.
You don't know what you don't know until you realize you don't know it.
Delgado, whose parents are immigrants, experienced this, too. She said she was unaware as a Washington State high school student that attending an out-of-state university was a possibility.
"Nobody really did it around me and it seemed like something that you'd have to have so much money for that it just didn't seem like an attainable thing," she said. "Looking back, if I would have had the opportunity, I would have loved to go somewhere else."
Hidden curriculum can sometimes make students question whether they belong at their campus, or in college, generally. Rodgers, who, like Rease Miles and Delgado, was the first in her family to attend college, remembers as an undergraduate student at Northwestern reading about quantitative methods for predicting college success among "underperforming students" at "urban schools" (Rodgers provided the air quotes during our interview over Zoom). The discussion made Rodgers, whose counselor at her Chicago public high school laughed at her when she said she wanted to go to Northwestern, uncomfortable.
"I'm reading this stuff, like, this could have been the high school that I went to. Are you trying to tell me that I'm not going to be successful here?" she said. "There was very little recognition that the things that we were reading were personal for some of us because for the majority of the class it wasn't."
For some students, hidden curriculum manifests itself as barriers to fully participating in college. When Tricarico, the functionally blind student, arrived at the small, private campus she attended in San Diego, she found that school events like club meetings and football games often weren't accessible to her. She'd have to advocate for herself each time she wanted to participate. "People don't expect there to be disabled people in the room," she said.
Revealing Hidden Curriculum
Rodgers thinks expecting students to uncover the hidden curriculum of their campus, often when they don't know there is one, is "a ridiculously unfair expectation that we place on students."
"You don't know what you don't know until you realize you don't know it," Rodgers said.
For example, professors' office hours. "I hear all the time, 'Why didn't this student go to office hours?' And it's like, 'Why would the student know to do that unless they were explicitly told?'" Rodgers said. "If [the professor is] not actually pedagogical and instructive in terms of naming what office hours are in the beginning, how they can be used, that they are not punitive, you're not coming because you're in trouble or you don't understand something or you're behind … if you're not doing that type of setup, then how would students know?"
Rease Miles said hidden curriculum can also show up in mundane, but essential, campus necessities, like knowing where to park.
Rease Miles said the term "first-generation" and discussions about how to support those students have increased exponentially in recent decades. She said that makes her optimistic, but she still hears frequently about struggles faced by first-generation students.
The university resources are there, [students] pay for them technically and so they should access them.
"That old-school mentality that first-gen students need to be fixed, or just need to be given money, is still kind of hanging out there," she said. "It's getting better, though."
Rease Miles said when she consults with institutions about how to better support students, she tells them that by targeting first-generation students as an audience, they'll actually serve all students. "Because then you'll start being more transparent, stop using so many acronyms and coded language, like just say what you mean," she said.
Delgado said first-generation students at UC Irvine told her they benefited from an orientation scavenger hunt that made them locate important spots on campus like the advising office. (Delgado has had her writing students do a scavenger hunt where they have to locate a quiet place to study on campus and where to find free printing.)
"The university resources are there, [students] pay for them technically and so they should access them," Delgado said.
Some campuses have also started programs to help the parents of first-generation and other students better understand the college experience.
But welcoming and supporting underrepresented students often falls to individual faculty and staff, Rodgers and Delgado said, especially those who are themselves underrepresented, and to specific groups, like multicultural student affairs.
Rodgers called for "a more equitable distribution of labor" when it comes to supporting students. "When I was working at the graduate school, I was in diversity and inclusion and if the email had 'diversity,' 'Black,' 'Latinx,' 'LGBT' or whatever buzzword in it, it came to us, no matter what the topic was about," she said. "Yes, of course, use us as a resource, but don't offload your stuff onto us. Equity is everybody's job."
Rodgers thinks the onus should be on institutions to "meet students where they are," rather than on students to decipher and adjust to an institution's hidden curriculum and culture. "Until that is the case, I think that one of the most powerful things that people can do is be in community with other people," Rodgers said. "We know that navigating institutions that were not made for us in many ways — in whatever way you want to take that — you can't do that alone."
And that is the impetus for this project: A place where students can learn from the experiences of their peers, so that the hidden curriculum is no longer hidden. What was unexpected for them about navigating higher education? Where and how did they find the keys to their success?