Georgetown course helps first-gen students master ‘the hidden curriculum’

Recognizing that many first-generation students enter college with little grounding in academe’s unspoken expectations, Georgetown University has created a course designed to ease that transition. Titled “Mastering the Hidden Curriculum,” the one-credit, 10-week course articulates the opportunities and challenges faced by first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented students; encourages conversations about power and inequality; and connects students with resources to support their success.

The course name was inspired by a fall 2017 Harvard Magazine article that recognized Georgetown as having “established the playbook” for supporting students from under-resourced high schools.

‘We are not offering an intensive etiquette lesson’

Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Marcia Chatelain, an associate professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown University, details the goals and genesis of the Hidden Curriculum course, which she team-teaches with three colleagues: Soyica Colbert, Ricardo Ortiz, and Sabrina Wesley-Nero.

Through readings and discussions on topics like cultural capital, impostor syndrome, effective communication, and faculty expectations, first-year students participating in the course learn how to cultivate relationships, seize opportunities, and advocate on their own behalf. They hear from undergraduate teaching assistants—first-generation students themselves—who have navigated these complexities. They learn to “name the dissonant experience of being away at college while tethered to the challenges of home,” Chatelain says.

The course addresses “the kind of issues not mentioned in the student handbook,” including the advantages and knowledge enjoyed by peers who have college-educated parents and mentors. Chatelain emphasizes that the goal is not to offer “an intensive etiquette lesson”; rather, it’s to show students “that another higher education is possible, one in which a parent’s alumni status or connections or wealth are not the only ways to realize success.”

Creating the Hidden Curriculum course

The course is the result of collaboration between the Georgetown Scholarship Program, which provides programmatic support to more than 650 first-generation and low-income undergraduate students, and Georgetown’s Designing the Future(s) initiative, which aims to accelerate educational innovation in pursuit of equity and efficacy.

In developing the course, former GSP student board president Emily Kaye (C’18) conducted focus groups with peers about their experiences and what they wished they had known before coming to Georgetown. With a greater understanding of the needs of this important student population, Kaye and GSP Assistant Director Jason Low (C’17), both GSP alumni, curated the course syllabus, drawing inspiration from a number of first-generation programs at other universities.

A call to challenge the status quo

In her article—part of The Chronicle’s special report on innovation in teaching—Chatelain says that teaching the Hidden Curriculum course has reinforced how innovation can take many forms. And, sometimes, she says, it “requires the hard task of acknowledging how inequality has shaped and continues to shape our students’ lives, and doing something about it.”

To that end, she says colleges working to support first-generation students must “challenge their campus culture,” recognizing how “practices of exclusion and elitism have shaped how we define, cultivate, and promote talent.” Chatelain hopes the Hidden Curriculum course will show students “that once we expose, and perhaps ‘master’ the hidden curriculum, we can go about dismantling it.”

Read Marcia Chatelain’s full article on The Chronicle website.

Straight from the syllabus: 6 must-reads for any first-generation ally

Georgetown students aren’t the only ones who can benefit from better understanding the identity and experiences of a first-generation college student. They need knowledgeable allies, too.

Headshot of Jason LowJason Low, GSP assistant director and co-creator of the Mastering the Hidden Curriculum course, recommends these six articles as a good place to start:

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