Gaining Cultural Capital For College Success Through Exposure

By Robert W. Andrews

I knew we were doing something right when Alberto returned from the “Prologue” program at Bates College in Lewiston Maine designed to recruit prospective students from diverse backgrounds. Alberto was an incredible student leader in high school, charismatic, relaxed, open-minded and bright, but convincing him that Maine would be a good place to go to college was going to take a lot of effort. It was my first year working for the Schuler Scholar Program and we had very few college students in New England and certainly none in Maine. When he left for Lewiston, I was nervous because his experience would impact other student’s perceptions. When he returned excited to apply, I was thrilled.  More important was a comment he made to me talking about his experience at the program. It was not only Bates’ welcoming community, but our “exposures” program that allowed Alberto to feel that he “fit” at Bates.

Teresa Heinz Housel’s recent article “First-Generation Students Need Help in Straddling Their Two Cultures” is a brilliant summary and first person account of the challenges when joining a residential college campus, particularly a highly selective one.  She describes the culture shock that many students coming from low-income backgrounds face when most students come from upper-middle class culture. The majority of students on these campuses have shared cultural experiences that provide a baseline for conversations and expectations by peers and faculty. Professor Heinz Housel describes a college experience that resonates with our Scholars experiences today. One where issues of class and cultural expectations collide, creating a precarious psychological experience for many first generation college students. She explains:

“I found it maddening to learn the cultural capital of academe, where rules were so often unspoken. The stress of managing two cultures was especially frustrating during my early college days, when I met classmates who took for granted an upbringing that often included family vacations abroad, museum and symphony visits, music camps, and familiarity with international cuisines. At once fascinated and intimidated, I met accepting friends who introduced me to Indian food (among others), independent films, art, and different religious philosophies. They respected me for forging an uncharted path on my own.”

Professor Heinz Housel offers some suggestions for institutions of higher education to help support students, but I’d like to suggest that more can be done upfront, prior to students entering college. Secondary educational institutions cannot be off the hook when preparing their students for four year colleges. Graduating high school is not enough to have multiple opportunities in a global world. Our students must have the goal of graduating from a four year college. We know that to be successful, students must be academically prepared, but there is growing evidence that much more is needed.

  Scholars Explore the Costume Department at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada.
When Alberto came back from Bates that fall, he told me that when he was hanging out with students late at night in the dorms, the conversation turned to musical theater and trips to Broadway. Without feeling out of place, Alberto jumped into the conversation talking about his thoughts on the musical Wicked, he had seen through our “exposures” program. It clicked for Alberto. At that moment, he understood why we were dragging him and his peers to see shows, visit museums, eat at a diverse array of restaurants and reading books outside of assigned classwork. He asked me to thank Mr. Schuler for the “exposure” programs because it allowed him to have a common set of experiences with his new peers. Otherwise, he said, he would have sat in that hallway feeling out of place. He may not have even applied to Bates. With the “exposures,” he felt like he could “fit” at Bates even though he would be quite different from most of his peers. He was armed with skills and experiences that could connect him to the majority culture. Alberto has thrived at Bates. He even served as Student Body President during his junior year. He clearly felt like he “fit.”

Our “exposures” program is quite extensive and influences most of our work. We believe that by exposing students to as many experiences, academic, cultural and social, they will be better equipped to thrive both academically and socially on a college campus. We know these experiences won’t take away all the culture shock they will experience when going to college, but hopefully it will soften the blow. Our hope is that students will be equipped with enough common ground with their peers that they can make a deep connection with their college community and know they belong.

To read more about our Exposure Program visit:

To read Professor Heinz Housel’s article visit:

To learn about other community based organizations interested in college access visit:


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