There has been much discussion of how the abrupt shift to online learning caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly affected postsecondary course delivery and exam administration, but perhaps less discussed is how this shift affects the informal but important ways in which students exchange knowledge. Student-to-student connection allows incoming postsecondary students to acquire knowledge about campus culture through conversations that may be informal or formal. Examples of informal student-to-student connections are student discussion in the classroom or conversations with friends. Formal student-to-student connections may be facilitated through transition programs offered at postsecondary institutions. These connections provide access to insider knowledge or tips that first-generation students, in particular, may not otherwise encounter.
For all students, but especially for first-generation students, adapting to PSE involves learning the tacit rules in a formal educational context that insiders consider to be natural and universal. This knowledge is referred to as the hidden curriculum and is often based on white middle class norms unknown to many first-generation students such as the benefits of acquiring social capital through strong relationships with professors or comfortably asking questions when one is confused. Student-to-student connections facilitates the process of learning how higher education works for students who are new to that world. By conversing and connecting with each other, students learn about services and supports; internship and networking opportunities; and how to do things like meet with professors during office hours or access financial assistance. Although institutions offer resources and services to help students adjust to postsecondary life, student-to-student connections are often the predominant method for sharing this information. Without in-person student orientation weeks, extracurricular activity fairs, library study groups, or even the luxury of being able to knock on a professor’s office door, it is likely that many of these interpersonal connections between students are not being made and important knowledge is not being shared.
Many universities have programs to support first-generation students and student-to-student connections as they transition to PSE. Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. launched a program in 2018 called Mastering the Hidden Curriculum. The 10-week course teaches first-generation students and low-income students the skills and cultural knowledge necessary to succeed at university, knowledge that students from postsecondary-educated families often already possess. The University of Toronto (U of T) offers a First in the Family Mentorship Program that formally facilitates student learning through student-to-student connection. Students from historically underrepresented groups, such as first-generation students, receive one-to-one and group guidance from upper-year students from similar backgrounds on subjects such as navigating barriers and how to have a successful university experience. The program also provides academic, career, wellness and social supports to foster a sense of belonging and community. U of T’s program is currently operating virtually; students can connect with their mentors online or via phone.
In the ongoing remote learning environment, formal and informal opportunities for student-to-student connection are diminished. This raises significant questions about the first-generation student experience that institutions should explore. Are these students accessing transition programs at the same rates during remote learning as in prior years? Are students aware that transition programs are available to them remotely? Are students, particularly those in their first year, accessing the services and programs they need? Is the hidden curriculum changing with the virtuality of PSE? If so, how are first-generation transition programs responding? The pandemic-induced virtual shift across institutions has been difficult for everyone but could be especially consequential to the success and retention of first-generation students.
It cannot be assumed that a diverse student body leads to a diversity of students participating across all areas of the institution. Without access to insider knowledge about institutional culture and norms, first-generation students might miss out on a multitude of opportunities and experiences or learn about such opportunities only after it’s too late. Without being on campus, students can no longer engage in face-to-face interaction nor be receptive to institutions’ offline outreach. Thus, it is especially pertinent that institutions target online communication to reach first-generation and other underrepresented students. Institutions must also be innovative in their efforts to encourage and create opportunities for student-to-student connection in the hopes of revealing the hidden curriculum and not letting first-generation students get left behind.
Victoria Barclay is a research intern and Ken Chatoor is a senior researcher at the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.