Should Honours College dig deeper?
Make us work a little harder, please
When she first heard about the UG’s Honours College, biomedical sciences student Diana Nacy assumed it was only for excellent students; those with the very highest grades. She was not one of them. ‘I had sevens and eights, but for some courses I also had sixes’, she says.
Nicki Günther, who’s doing a master in cultural leadership, had her doubts too, initially. ‘I never considered myself to be part of the top 10 or 15 percent of students.’
If you pass your regular courses, you can do honours
The Honours College was set up to give ‘talented, motivated students the opportunity to challenge themselves even more’, by offering them 15 or 20 additional credits worth of education for a master track, and 45 credits for the bachelor programme. When the first track – Leadership: making the difference – was introduced in 2011, sixty-one students enrolled. In 2020, a record number of 172 students applied for that track, with 142 of them being offered a place for the 2020/2021 academic year.
‘I thought it would be cool to do honours, but was afraid I would be under much more pressure to get things done’, says Diana. But as it turned out, ‘if you’re able to pass all your regular courses and manage your time wisely, you can do honours’. That has been Nicki’s experience as well. ‘I think that students who may have not the highest grades, but are really motivated to do something extra, are suitable for the programme.’
To vice dean Peter Groote, it makes perfect sense that Diana and Nicki decided to enrol in the leadership master track. He’s not looking for high grades as such, he says. ‘We’re looking for students who want to be challenged to reflect on themselves and tackle societal issues. The focus is on trying to find people who are intrinsically motivated to do something on top of their regular studies.’
Every applicant has to write a motivation letter and provide a reference. After that, they are interviewed by faculty honours coordinators who root out those who wouldn’t be able to deal with the autonomy that is asked of students. ‘The fact that you have to develop your own learning objectives is probably the hardest part of the programme’, says Groote.
We’re looking for students who want to reflect on themselves
Still, grades do play some part in whether a student is picked. ‘We think it’s very important that students finish their regular studies’, says Groote. Therefore, if coordinators get the impression during the interview that the honours programme would be too much for a student to take on, they are rejected ‘to protect them from their own ambitions and the social pressure to do everything’.
The select group of students who get in are offered masterclasses and workshops and get access to the ‘leadership lab’ where they work on a project for an organisation in their field of interest. They round out the programme with a ‘masterwork’, a project of their own which showcases their leadership skills and the knowledge they have acquired.
But why would you want to spend even more time studying? Aren’t students busy enough as it is? Or are regular UG tracks simply too easy for some?
Nicki signed up hoping to develop practical skills. ‘That’s something I really miss in my studies, and in academia in general. How to communicate better with people, how to tackle conflicts or how to lead a discussion. Basically, learning something useful that is not research.’
‘My main motive for signing up was to broaden my knowledge’, says Diana, ‘but I also think it would be a good thing to have on your résumé.’
Patricia Leistner, who’s doing a research master in modern history and international relations, had similar motivations. She aspires to do a PhD one day and hopes doing an honours track will give her an advantage over other applicants, but she also wanted to broaden her perspective. ‘I wanted to study more, learn more, in an environment that is different from my own studies. I think the exchange with people from different disciplines helps you to see things in a way you wouldn’t have considered yourself.’
The programme made me think outside the box
For Patricia, one of the highlights of the leadership track has been the masterclass about conflict transformation. ‘In my study we don’t do group work at all’, she says, but thanks to the masterclass she’s developed her ability to solve problems through communication. ‘I’ve already applied the strategies we learned to my everyday life, which has been very helpful.’
‘What I love most about the programme is that it made me think outside the box’, says Diana. ‘I come from the science faculty and we are taught to think, work and write in a specific way. Honours College has challenged me to think in another way, which is more creative.’
Daniel Boston, who’s doing the same research master as Patricia, says he enjoyed the classes about personal and professional development. ‘Like the workshop on how to express yourself as a leader, because that’s something that is put on the back burner with normal studies.’
However, he’s critical about the honours programme, too. ‘The masterclasses were way too shallow’, he says. ‘I know that the programme is designed for a wider audience, but if you come from a background that is similar to the masterclasses, they’re not that ground-breaking. Personally, I would prefer to focus on interpersonal skills.’
Despite his disappointment, he decided to push on, because the masterwork project at the end of the programme had been his initial reason to sign up. Most other honours students also make it to the finish line: of the 2020/2021 cohort, only seven students have dropped out so far.
According to study advisor Nick Nieuwenhuijsen, those who do so are generally unable to combine the programme with their regular master track, or they feel the workload is too heavy. ‘And once people have their mind set on quitting, it’s difficult to motivate them again.’
For psychology student Lea Gomolzig though, it was another case of failed expectations. She had hoped the masterclasses would offer something ‘more practical and creative’. When that didn’t turn out to be the case, she decided to quit. ‘It felt exactly like my regular programme, very theoretical. Also, the amount of preparation was an issue,’ she says. ‘I would have liked to give the programme more of a chance, but I thought: if I stop now, I won’t waste any more time.’
The leadership theme is so vague
The fact that the classes moved online because of the coronavirus didn’t help either. ‘I had lectures the whole day, and in the evening I had honours classes that would sometimes last until 10 p.m.’, she says. ‘I was sitting there for four hours and I hated everything. At that point I just said to myself: I can’t do this every single night, I’m too stressed for this.’
Diana, who’s still in the honours programme, feels the quality of the masterclasses varies enormously. ‘I expected more from some classes’, she says. ‘The leadership theme is so vague. You can learn the different theories about leadership, but that doesn’t automatically make you a good leader.’
Assistant professor of educational sciences Jasperina Brouwer counters that ‘it’s also up to the students how much they take away from this. You can either read the material and truly put effort into it, or do the assignments as fast as possible.’ Brouwer graduated from the Honours College herself as a student and now teaches there, so she’s been on both sides. Nevertheless, she adds, there’s always room for adaptation.
In the end, most of the students agree that the honours experience is worthwhile. ‘One instructor from my masterclasses has been a Dutch diplomat for fifteen years’, says Nicki. ‘I think he can teach me more on negotiations than the average university teacher.’