Book by: Buffy Smith
Review by: Rachel Goldfarb
Steinhardt Department of Administration, Leadership, and Technology
New York University

Mentoring At-Risk Students through the Hidden Curriculum of Higher Education follows the story of Krista, a fictional yet realistic low-income first-generation African American college student. Krista’s story, and the stories of the real-life students featured in the book, illustrates the myth of meritocracy in the US. Based on the idea that success in the “hidden curriculum” increases students’ ability to succeed in the formal curriculum, Buffy Smith provides clear, tangible guidelines an institution can follow to adapt a mentoring program to lead students through the hidden curriculum. She defines the hidden curriculum as the “set of unwritten norms, values, and expectations that unofficially governs how individuals interact with and evaluate one another”.

Smith provides a three-cycle mentoring program model: advising, advocacy, and apprenticeship. The mentoring model requires that each student have four mentors: an administrative, faculty, or staff mentor, a peer mentor, a community mentor, and a family mentor. Smith explains what role each mentor plays, although the vast majority of the book focuses on administrative, faculty, and staff mentors. Smith lists specific qualities mentor directors should look for in mentor and mentee candidates. For example, mentors should be culturally competent, promoters of self-esteem, and problem solvers. Mentees should be committed, self-motivated, and have positive attitudes.  The model is clear, however, identifying and coordinating with four mentors per student seems overly complex, both for mentor program directors and for the students themselves.  

Smith suggests mentors teach students how to successfully navigate the hidden curriculum through detailed advice, bridging relationships, and scripts that demonstrate appropriate ways to interact with faculty and administrators. Smith recommends mentors get deeply involved in mentees’ academic life through evaluation of their writing, suggestions for research projects, and guidance on how to appropriately conduct themselves in class discussions.

Throughout the book, Smith provides data from research she conducted with a very small group of mentors and mentees. The mentors in her study rarely provide advice as detailed or as directive as she proposes in her model. It is unclear how her study ties into the book, as she never clarifies why these non-exemplary cases were successful or if they failed. If they were successful, the evidence to support the mentoring model the book offers is lacking.

The highlight of the book is the mock advice column in the concluding chapters, in which mentors and mentees seek advice and the author responds with feedback. The scenarios illustrate a wide variety of conversations an advisor could potentially have with students at any school. The topics provide several examples of how the hidden curriculum impacts students. The advice provided in the mock column is astute and practical.

Despite the clever ending and clear model for a mentoring program, the book does not provide much novel information for a trained advisor. The structure of the book is also hard to follow. While the impact of the hidden curriculum on the formal curriculum is a fundamental idea in the book, Smith never clearly explains how this is so. 

Mentoring At-Risk Students through the Hidden Curriculum of Higher Education. (2013). Book by Buffy Smith. Review by Rachel Goldfarb, Lexington Books. 194 pp. $60.00 (Hardback), ISBN #978-0-7391-6566-9

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