What “Honors Program” Actually Means

By Annerijn Vink

Winter 2012. I like writing for the Boomerang and I read every newspaper I can get my hands on. Spring 2013. I find out that besides the UCU journalism course, I can do a journalism minor in Dutch at the UU, which is necessary to get into a journalism master’s. But the minor will take a full semester, and my curriculum is tight. My tutor suggests I request an extra semester. Summer 2013. Email from the College Hall administration. I can’t take a seventh semester, because “you need to finish your UCU major requirements within three years.”

I’m sad and disappointed. Sad, because I was looking forward to taking those courses. Disappointed, because this decision was not what I expected from UCU.

Yes, we all want to graduate within three years, but what does ‘honors’ mean besides that?

Especially after the mental health debate that took place on campus this fall, it feels like I’m not alone in questioning the value of UCU education compared to other programs. Programs that may have given me time to do an extra minor, and that may not require such a big sacrifice in terms of personal life. I expected to be allowed to excel on all fronts, not just academically. I expected UCU to give me more freedom to explore my academic interests, and more time for personal and professional development.

Any student-to-be can read on the UCU website that “students have great freedom to develop an individual course of studies, and express their individual talents to the very best of their abilities.” However, that doesn’t fully answer the question.

According to Director of Education Fried Keesen, honors education is hard to define. “But a true honors student positions himself right in the middle of a triangle, where the corners represent above average ability, task commitment, and creativity.” This is not a new idea. In 1978, psychologist Joseph Renzulli proposed a model of giftedness using very similar terms. Keesen: “In the admission process, we are indeed looking at the three factors that Renzulli described.”

Honors education, Keesen points out, only recently appeared on the Dutch stage. “In the Netherlands, we tend to give attention to those who do not so well, we are satisfied with the average student, and have nothing for those who perform extraordinary well.”

“However, as incomes from natural gas dried up at around the turn of the century, the Balkenende administrations decided that we needed a knowledge-led economy. UCU was established in exactly that wave of thinking,” Keesen says.

As the first university college in the Netherlands, UCU had to come up with an idea about honors education by itself.

“UCU has three focal points: a sense of community, a possibility of selecting and differentiating, and incentives to strive for excellence,” Keesen says.

The eagerness to allow students to excel resonates throughout Keesen’s story. The education system is designed to optimize our performance. The number of contact hours? Based on a Dutch study on the trade-off between contact hours and independent study. Ways of getting feedback? Based on psychological consensus on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

But studying at UCU comes at a cost. Keesen: “If you study here, you can’t just ‘do your thing’. Studying at UCU is a state of mind.”

Fifth semester student Lisa ten Brinke experiences that right now. “As I’m currently busy enough with short-term school work, I don’t always find the time to think about long-term plans, especially when it comes to professional development.”

UCU consciously creates an intensive educational setting. The drawback: a demanding environment like this does not accept intruders. “We encourage extracurricular activities, but if they go at the cost of your academic performance, they compromise the concept of UCU,” Keesen says. “The only reason that ASC and the UCSA Board get course reduction is that they have a right to it by Dutch law.”

“But a selling point of our graduates is that UCU students, unlike many others, meet their deadlines,” says Keesen.

According to Mark Baldwin, the pressure that a lot of students are experiencing is pressure for time, rather than academic pressure. “Managing commitments within time constraints and recovering from any mistakes made along the way is one of the ways in which a student can maximize their UCU experience in preparation for employment and life in general.”

Sixth semester student Thijs Olthof also thinks that the intensive education model at UCU, though demanding at times, prepares students for post-graduation life. “It’s not just going the extra mile that sets many UCU students apart, but the fact that after three years it comes to them as natural. And that both makes me a better prospective employee and a happier individual.”

The stages of UC

Even though it might feel     like you go through your own particular trouble, parts of your personal     development at UCU are shared by us all. “A deliberate generalization” by     Mark Baldwin:

  1.     Excited     acclimatization
    “You come to UCU and try to get familiar with campus life and studies.”
  2.     Settle     down
    “A more true relationship between the individual and the institution starts     to arise. The student discovers what focus he or she really wants to bring     to their study, in what ways, and how to balance this with extra-curricular     activity.
  3.     Fatigue
    “Students might feel tired from being in the same environment and dealing     with the ongoing mixture of exciting, challenging and demanding aspects of     student life. I think this feeling is common among all students and not     unique to UCU at all.”
  4. Nervousness, relief,     excitement & doubt
    “Leaving university comes with great mix of feelings. You might experience     relief, nervousness, excitement, doubt, nostalgia and/or a sense of     progress, but you are most likely to find yourself in the middle of a     cocktail of feelings.”

He adds that pressure really depends on the phase of studies you are in. For him, the workload increased especially in his third year. “In the first two years I could easily combine studying with committee-work and friends. But once you get into your third year you experience bigger increases in workload due to the research thesis and intense 300-level courses.” (See the box for different experiences throughout the three years at UCU.)

Seen in this light, the pressure to finish UCU in three years, the reluctance to relax deadlines, and the dedication to full course loads for students all exist for our own sake. Our own academic sake. It prepares us for extrabubbular life and ensures the value of our diploma.

Still, even the world’s most precious diploma does not justify a proliferation of mental illnesses. Since Auke van der Veen’s article in De Groene Amsterdammer, mental health has been a hotly debated topic. The Management Team recently discussed the results of the Let’s Talk event with the UCSA Board and ASC. Is there a relationship between academic pressure and mental health problems?

Keesen: “The issue has always existed. It is merely the other side of the coin.” According to him students inflict this partly upon themselves. Reported studying time per week has gone down by 10 minutes each year. If you want to get a high grade yet spend less time, stress is a logical result.

Student Life Officer Mark Baldwin, looks at the students, too. “Not all stress is unhealthy, even though some students may think so while they’re going through it.”

“A lot of stress can be temporary, educational, and actually useful in the long run. However, deep stress, related for example to serious social anxieties or depression, is graver and is taken very seriously,” Baldwin says. “It really is a matter of perception. Students who go hitchhiking also experience stress, but they seem to accept it as an exciting, positive type. However, when they need to hand in an assignment, it is suddenly perceived as an unhealthy type of stress.”

Keesen admits that the mental health of students is a concern. “I can understand that students feel the pressure sometimes, but there is a lot of research that says that people don’t get to deeper understanding when they are in their comfort zone. We want to take them to a zone of discomfort, and allow that to become a comfort zone again. Of course, behind that is a danger zone. But to be honest, I worry more about whether we pull all students out of their academic comfort zone, rather than about the few that end up in the danger zone.”



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