The second week of this semester, my supervisor said something interesting. There was a discussion on which students should be admitted to the honours programme, based on past academic record and achievement in the entrance exams. The discussion was on what makes a good honours student , and my co-worker gave his view: “An honours student is a gifted student, who is rewarded for doing more work than his peers by special recognition.”

So, we should take the highest scoring students and offer them honours, right? My supervisor thought different, she said something that describes the situation much more accurately: “A gifted student is someone that studies for many hours a day until they get really good at what they do. An honours student is simply a student that studies outside their discipline, as well as inside it. Our decision should be whether their work here will suffer because of that outside study.”

Gifted, honours or both?

What does this mean for a University College? There is a strict selection at many University Colleges that allows admissions mostly to high-performing students that have ‘international experience’ or ‘international aptitude.’ However, the stated purpose of University Colleges and the liberal arts education they offer is to allow breadth, rather than depth. So are all University College students gifted, or honours, or both?

The conclusion I came to is that University College students are excellent, each in their own way. Although ‘outside of their discipline’ is rather vague when a University College does not teach anyone just one discipline, there are certainly students who I still consider honours students. Students who study politics and law, who have always wanted to be a lawyer or a politician, yet they complete an art history minor. Students who study history and philosophy, yet know a little bit of physics. These are people I believe deserve to be called ‘honours’ UC students. Gifted students? Plenty of those. Students graduating with high GPAs and a thesis that makes even an expert say “Wow!”

Excellent development

So, what about those students that are neither focusing on subjects outside their discipline or are not gifted ? The students that have GPAs lower than average, whose theses are not ground-breaking, and who have not completed many courses in a discipline outside their major? Why do I still think of them as excellent students? I will use myself as an example. I came to study at University College Utrecht because I was unsure of what I wanted to study, and I now major Mathematics and Economics. I did not end up taking a large amount of courses outside of that major, nor did I get particularly high grades.

I did, however, consistently reach the goals I set for myself before starting my degree here. The first time I met with my tutor, I told her not to worry about my grades as long as I was passing my courses. While I didn’t want to lose my right to be a student here, I also didn’t want my grades to be the main outcome of my learning. I wanted to be involved in the community, both on and off campus. I wanted to meet interesting new people and learn their perspectives, debate world views! Most of all, I wanted to teach. I have known for a while that teaching is one of my biggest passions in life, whether it is tutoring high school students, playing around with my nephews, or teaching a classroom of first years.

Every semester, a meeting with my tutor allows me to reflect on my progress so far, and I find that I have been doing the things I came here to do. For almost three years now, I have met interesting new people, been involved in the community, and taught in one way or another. Can that not be said to be excellent? I have achieved exactly what I came here to do.

Who doesn’t reach their goals?

Now you might think to yourself: “Well, maybe that qualifies as excellent, but what about those people who don’t reach their goals?” I ask you in return: “Who doesn’t reach their goals?” You might tell people that your goal is to study hard so that you can get the highest GPA possible or to ‘fulfil your potential.’ Yet in the morning you don’t get out of bed, and when you do, you don’t study. You haven’t reached your goal, right?

Well… no. You haven’t defined the right goal. Maybe your goal for that day was to enjoy yourself, rest for a day so you do not succumb to the pressures of student life? Maybe your goal for that day was to make someone smile? Maybe it was just to convince yourself to get out of bed?

Next time you think about what you want in life, consider long term and short term goals. Many of you probably have been thinking about where you want to go for your masters degree, or what type of career you want afterwards. How often do you sit down at the start of the day and define your goals for the day, or the week? This way, you can define goals within a certain context. Have a rough week? Make your goals easy and feel good about making them. On a roll lately? Create some difficult stretch goals to get the most out of your work.

Excellence is not a constant quality of certain people, it’s not just about hard work or genius. It is also about defining your goals correctly and being realistic with yourself. So next time you walk around your University College, look at some of the students that you haven’t interacted with much. Students that don’t have high GPAs, incredible social skills, or great extracurriculars. When you find them, ask yourself what makes this person excellent: what makes them tick? Who knows, maybe they just wanted to make someone smile today, and that someone could be you . Talk to them and find out!