Our Focus: Navigating College

Mentor for Philly understands that it is not enough to just get into college. Instead, we know that our work is not done until a graduation cap is thrown in the air with a diploma in hand.

The focus of our pre-college component is addressing the overlooked foundational issue of students’ skills to navigate college in the first place. Over 90% of our students are the first in their family to go to college (also known as, “first generation”) and in order to succeed, they require more than just advice or opinions, and acceptance letters or financial aid. They should have access to the same type of knowledge-building relationships and enriching experiences available to their more advantaged peers that will help them discover and define their futures — and learn how to navigate a college environment.

Consider this hypothetical: you are suddenly dropped into a foreign country. You do not understand the language, the norms, or the culture. You have no idea where or how to ask for help. And yet, you have a massive weight of responsibility (and financial debt) on your shoulders. It’s time to sink or swim.

Temple professor and college success advocate Sara Goldrick-Rab writes that the core challenge to college completion for students from disadvantaged backgrounds is that they are “less likely to possess a clear sense of how to negotiate either the college social or academic context.” Therefore, “when these students are confronted with multiple pathways or options (with regards to courses, programs of study, etc), they are more likely to make ineffective choices.” Especially at community colleges, students arrive “struggling to navigate bureaucracies” and “having little understanding of how to be students.”

As a matter of fact, I was the first in my own family to attend college in the United States. My father did go to college — in Taiwan, which is literally half a world away. I had to learn the customs and culture of college myself. In other words, I had to learn what Regina Deil-Amen and James Rosenbaum call the “social know-how…[which is” the hidden curriculum of social prerequisites” of college. The “hidden curriculum,” unlike the formal curriculum of study in classes, is the “unwritten norms, values, and expectations that unofficially govern the interactions among students, faculty, professional staff, and administrators” necessary for one to succeed in higher education. A student’s grasp about “how to handle enrollment enrollment, class registration, and financial aid; the initiate information gathering; to access sound and useful advice; to avoid costly mistakes; and to manage conflicting demands — is likely to affect their ultimate college success.” Post-secondary success is not possible without mastery of higher education’s informal hidden curriculum, says Buffy Smith, which is “the invisible key that unlocks the door and provides full access for understanding and mastering the formal curriculum” of college.

My first few weeks in college, I was overwhelmed with questions. Where do I go for academic support? How do I talk to professors? Am I on the right academic track? Who can help me learn how to study in college? How can all this be so different from high school? How does my meal plan work? Do I have to raise my hand to go to the bathroom?

There is one truism about first-gen students (that you've probably heard before): we don’t know what we do not know.

To know and be able to execute the Six Skills of College Success is to be ready to navigate college itself. We also know that the best way to learn these skills is with the help of those already there. In the Philly College Team, our students learn, practice, and embody firsthand these skills with the mentorship of their fellow teammates.

Each member of the MFP family brings his or her experiences to each relationship within the team. The same goes for our leadership team. I see the Six Skills reflected in my own experiences.

When I think about excelling at college level work, I remember the enormous amount of red ink on my first college paper that made me question whether I was cut out to be a political science major.

When I think about being on an intentional career and major pathway, I remember learning about majors I had never even heard of and wondering if I was on the right path to a successful education and career.

When I think about engaging support services and professors, I remember how nervous I was to sit down with a professor for the first time, afraid that he was judging me for asking for help.

When I think about managing financial aid, I remember the complexities of FAFSA and the fact that even CPAs, let alone high schoolers, have trouble with the forms that can determine whether you can even go to college.

When I think about being empowered as a minority, I remember the culture shock I had when I first stepped on campus and the confusion within my own self for whether I even belonged.

And when I think about balancing time and extracurriculars, I remember how I struggled with my newfound college freedom and needed the support of friends and advisors to eventually organize my own life.

Grounded in literature and research, and taught through our own lived experiences, Philly College Team looks beyond access and admissions. We are not just a college access organization — we are the local college success nonprofit. By leveraging the college process as a vehicle to prepare students with the social know-how to succeed in higher education, we are preparing students to achieve towards completion. That is our ultimate goal. That is what matters. That is worth fighting for.