Colleges Students

Navigating the Hidden Curriculum

Staffing university open house events is always one of the most interesting experiences because I’m always surprised at how honest families are with me about their anxieties towards the college search process. Oftentimes questions hone in on the beginning stages of being a college student: the application process and the probability of being selected, major selection and its supposed connection to job viability, faculty to student ratios, and campus resources, to name a few. These are all important ideas to think about when selecting the “right” college. This hyper focus on the details of the pre-college period and subsequent first semester experience is often given the most time, research, and reflection— by families, by high schools, by the media, etc. However, for laymen outside the field, thing likes “student yield” (the percentage of students that make it through their first year into their sophomore year) and graduation rate are two important but often unknown metrics to consider.

Looking at the Big Picture

Yes, we need to reflect on tools and strategies that lead to success in the beginning stages, but also those that help push students along all the way to graduation. One of the most critical and often underestimated of those tools is the creation and maintenance of a robust support network of peers and advocates to help navigate a complex university life. This network is vital to success in the classroom sense as well as in the development of healthy peer relationships. It also plays a crucial role in how well (or poorly) a student navigates a college’s “hidden curriculum” – that set of unwritten and oftentimes even unspoken set of socio-cultural rules, norms, and subtle strategies that facilitate the everyday workings of university living. This can include things like the knowledge of emergency tuition funds, the awareness of scholarship organizations, or the ability to wield the language to build rapport with faculty. First generation students (i.e. those that are the first in their family to go to college) often struggle through no fault of their own because they lack awareness of or experience with the hidden curriculum, regardless of their intelligence or drive. A student’s ability to develop and maintain a support network (or in other words, their ability to gain “social capital”) can be a determining factor in their success.

Building Social Capital

Students should build themselves a team early on in their experience; a network of supporters that they can turn to during times of crisis, to share skills with, to request recommendations or references from, to connect them to powerful people in their chosen professional fields. These relationships can be built with staff and faculty, of course, but I’ve realized that students can often be each other’s best resources. Which classes are the most helpful in learning public speaking skills or maybe which advisor is the best at helping edit internship cover letters? While I might have a bird’s eye view of the university, students have the on-the-ground knowledge of the detailed, subtle aspects of campus life. Students’ peers can collaborate as they navigate the hidden curriculum even when we as professionals are sometimes siloed in our functional areas. However, we can facilitate their network building by having them engage in tasks like:

  • Meet and have coffee with one new person every month
  • Once a semester, send at least three “check-in” emails to professors’ whose classes you really enjoyed or to the group project teammates that you worked well with
  • Attend a club meeting for an existing interest AND a club meeting for something that you would never have considered going to when you were in high school
  • Interact with someone in your major but that is a few years ahead of you or even work with your school to find an alumni mentor in your chosen field

As I’ve watched students on their first day through to their last, I’ve seen that the ones who build the foundations for a strong future are the ones that spent their time building a strong team. This skillset comes naturally to some, but it is our responsibility as staff to watch for signs of struggle and isolation, as well as opportunities to facilitate strategic connections to people that will help bolster their academic and professional goals.

Written by Ana Castillo-Nye 

Ana Castillo-Nye completed her psychology degree at Rutgers University and continued with graduate studies at the School of Education where she received her masters of education in College Student Affairs. After spending some years in the higher ed field, Ana has now moved on to organizational development and community partnership work with her husband in their own business— a social-good oriented independent pharmacy located in the Greater Baltimore area. Through their pharmacy internship program she still has the opportunity to work with students regularly. In her spare time, Ana volunteers as an advocacy trainer for a citizen lobbying group focused on global health and poverty, proudly teaching others how to speak and write powerfully to their lawmakers.