This study explores how first-year students experience, perceive, and make sense of institutional culture in higher education during the transition from high school to college. Examining institutional culture during the first year remains relevant because nearly 25% of all students who depart higher education do so within their first year (Nalbone et al., 2015). When disaggregated, there are problematic differences among these departures based on students gender, race, and first-generation status (Pell, 2015). Institutional culture, therefore, serves as a timely tool to account for variation in first-year students transitional experiences.This study employs a cultural constructivist methodology that is informed by a constructivist theoretical perspective. This methodology accounts for the multiple realities of various stakeholders. Sixty-two students50 in their first year and 12 in their second yearat a middle Atlantic university comprised a stratified purposeful sample for this study. Data was collected through one-on-one semi-structured interviews and analyzed following interpretative thematic analysis.Several key findings of this study expose the complexity of co-construction that is integral to interpreting individual experiences within the institutional culture that I studied. First, learning institutional culture transpires for students as an ongoing, multifaceted process throughout the first year. Immersion, trial and error, and observation serve as tactics students rely upon to learn how to perform cultural norms. Second, friendships that develop during the first year appear as interconnected constellations that remain homogenous based on gender and political dispositions. These friendships aid students in interpreting the institutional culture. Third, institutional rituals produce in students feelings of belonging through shared emotions. Ceremonies that celebrate individual identities suggest through symbolic actions a strong sense of mattering that deepens institutional connection. Finally, minoritized students encounter differential interactions with the institutional culture. Friendships, often developed through cultural student organizations, facilitate transition and deflect discrimination experienced by minoritized students. Students with intersecting minoritized identities may rely on hopeful self- reliance to overcome challenges in the face of transitional isolation. Understanding these processes provides the opportunity for researchers and practitioners to unravel the complexities of campus cultures that impinge upon student success. Implications are drawn for theory and future research.