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U of A program helps new students navigate ‘hidden curriculum’

Gloria Arellano Lopez, left, helps Maximiliano “Max” Valenzuela with a research worksheet assignment during a University of Arizona New Start summer class. The UA’s New Start summer program aims at helping first-generation students as well as other incoming college students with the transition from high school to a university.

When fall classes start at the University of Arizona this month, first-year student Natalie Robinson will already know where to find her classes, the library, tutoring help and even free food.

That’s because Robinson, who moved to Tucson from Nashville, Tennessee, this summer, was one of 206 students who got a guided preview of college life through a long-running program called New Start.

Launched in 1969, New Start gives rising freshmen at the UA a chance to live on campus, connect with a peer mentor and take two credit-earning classes for six weeks during the summer between high school graduation and college.

For Robinson, who is the first person in her immediate family to attend college, participating in New Start this summer was about giving herself an advantage she hasn’t always had.

“I just really needed to get that feel for college life before starting in the fall,” Robinson said. “Where I come from in Nashville, school isn’t always prioritized, But I’m the type of person who wants to push myself to do more and be more.”

New Start is open to all incoming UA students, but the program has historically focused its recruitment efforts on low-income, first-generation students, and offers scholarships to all who qualify for the federal Pell Grant, which is intended for low-income students.

More than 60% of this year’s class qualified for the scholarship, which pays for tuition, fees and a six-week stay in the dorms.

Over the past few years, the UA has unrolled multiple need-based financial aid packages in an effort to widen access to higher education and diversify its student body. But once those sought-after students — many of them don’t have parents who went to college — arrive on campus, they need an environment that will help them achieve their goals, which is a more nuanced operation than covering course costs.

That’s the gap New Start has been helping to fill for more than 50 years.

At the UA’s main campus in Tucson, more than 40,000 students are milling through the 352-acre sprawl of brick buildings on any given weekday in the fall and spring. That’s the overwhelming environment all first-time students are coming into, but first-generation college students can’t always turn to their families for sound advice to make acclimating easier.

“We try to help students navigate what we call the hidden curriculum,” Jacob Shirley, coordinator for New Start, said. The “hidden curriculum” can include commonly used acronyms, how to take advantage of office hours, what the purpose of the Registrar’s Office is and how to get free meals at the UA Student Pantry.

“By the time they start in the fall, they know where everything is and what these terms mean. They can be confident and walk a little taller on campus,” Shirley said. “They need to see they have a place here.”

Damanitza Romo, right, gives a thumbs-up to teacher and University of Arizona New Start peer mentor Katrina Diaz after turning in a class worksheet during a UA New Start summer class.

Retention tool

Frustration over not understanding the “hidden curriculum” is one factor, along with financial stress and family burdens, contributing to worse overall outcomes for first-generation college students compared to their peers.

According to a report from the National Association of Personnel Administrators, 82% of first-generation students at public four-year colleges stayed in school after their first year, whereas 86% of students who had at least one college-educated parent stayed.

The long term achievement gap is much wider: About half of students whose parents went to college finished a bachelor’s degree within six years, but 20% of first-generation students finished within the same timeframe.

Although not every student who participates in New Start is considered low-income or first-generation, the numbers show that it’s a valuable retention tool nonetheless.

According to the UA, 89% of students who attended New Start in 2020 came back after their first year, compared to 77% of overall students in a similar peer group. Data for the 2021 cohort is not yet available, but 92% returned to the UA after their fall semester.

A big part of what makes New Start work is the peer mentoring aspect.

Each student is assigned a peer mentor — a UA college student who is likely to have shared a similar experience to their mentee — who is there to offer advice and help new students get settled.

Natalie Robinson, right, and Tony Menogue, friends and students in the University of Arizona's New Start summer program, bag up their items from the UA's Food Pantry at the Student Union.

Karina Diaz, who is a rising senior, worked as a peer mentor and taught a course on leadership for New Start this summer. She’s a first-generation college student herself but did not participate in the program.

Sometimes, she wishes she had, because it took a while to find her niche on campus by herself.

As a mentor, “I had an opportunity to create a community with my students,” said Diaz, who is working to become a social worker. “As mentees, they got to speak to someone with more experience and get an idea of what university life is like. They get to experience college on a very small scale.”

‘Feels like home’

Natalie Robinson — the young woman who moved here from Tennessee — is one student Diaz is particularly proud of.

“I saw her grow a lot more confident during the program,” Diaz said, recalling how Robinson stayed cool amid a hiccup during a final presentation.

Robinson has noticed the change in herself, too.

“I’ve grown up a lot in these last six weeks,” she said on a recent afternoon at the library, where she was finishing up her final project. “I can see it in everything — even the emails I write.”

Having a mentor like Diaz — they’re both first-generation college students and they’re both majoring in sociology — and the opportunity to get to know the campus without the pressures of the fall semester is keeping her excited for her future at the UA.

“At first, campus seemed so intimidating,” she said. “But I feel a lot more at home now.”

Kathryn Palmer covers higher education for the Arizona Daily Star. Contact her via e-mail at or her new phone number, 520-496-9010.

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