A second degree is not the answer

Highly gifted students need personalised approach

hoogbegaafd foto: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

Gifted students have an IQ of 130 to 145. They comprise about 2.5 percent of the population. An even smaller group (0.1 percent) is considered "highly gifted" and has an IQ of 145 or higher. Most gifted students – and I speak from experience – know the threefold meaning of being "(very) highly gifted". On the one hand, we're assumed to have a lot of potential for being people of high intelligence, discerning and creative. We are also often accused of being "too much": too serious, too idealistic, too impatient, too intense. The latter derives from our own experience: many gifted people feel invisible, lonely, depressed, bored, and with a sense of meaninglessness — even at the university. Sometimes precisely because they are at a university. Some statistics are far more important than being part of a "2.5 percent elite", such as the fact that 15,000 highly gifted kids are currently sitting idle at home instead of going to school (article in Dutch, Ed). They have concluded that participating in the Dutch educational system is no longer possible for them.

Simon Bloo, a member of UU’s wellbeing team, says that the topic of highly gifted students really got on UU’s radar last year. “Eight times a year, there is a meeting of study counsellors. In December, a representative of Wageningen University came to speak about gifted students.” Leiden University has also taken steps in that regard, publishing a list (in Dutch only, Ed.) of possible challenges for this group of students.

Just like me, highly gifted Jedidja (19) and very highly gifted Alexander (20) can relate to some of the items on the list,  such as the challenges we experience with regard to communication, regulating stimuli, boredom, anxiety and having trouble organising themselves. Jedidja: “Things have been tough for me since primary school. I've suffered from rage issues because I was so bored.” She then transferred to a school specialised in highly gifted students. “It wasn’t always easy – I didn’t learn a lot about grammar, for instance – but I wasn’t bored and unhappy there.”

For me personally, going to university gave me hope. That's where the magic happens, or so I thought. I soon became disillusioned. The ugly truth is that the bigger the institution, the harder it is to participate in it. Highly gifted people need a personalised approach and big institutions find it hard to provide this to them.

Alexander shares this experience: “I went to study at University College Utrecht, where I was able to pick all kinds of subjects but I still couldn’t find what I was looking for, which was the possibility to work on a real-world project.” Jedidja, too, looked forward to studying at a university. “I was incredibly bored in the last two years of high school. It was so bad that I took a gap year just to recover from that experience. Once at the university, I quickly realised that things were not different at all there. It didn't go well.” This last statement is a euphemism. In my conversations with Alexander and Jedidja, I learned within a few minutes that they were both depressed. Disillusionment and depression are old friends for us highly gifted people.

Bore-out or burn-out
When a highly gifted person asks for help because they're bored, the university usually suggests them to take up an extra activity. “After my first year in Linguistics, I knew things had to change", says Jedija. "I spoke to my counsellor, took on extra courses and started a second Bachelor's degree.” Although the monster of boredom was quieted, the additional actitivies were not a permanent solution. “At some point, I was following two programmes, was an active member of a student association, worked for 20 hours a week, and I had family and friends that I wanted to see. I ended up getting a burn-out.” Alexander also thinks that doing more things is not the solution: “I wanted different work, not more work. If I were able to follow the Honours track, I would have more freedom to design my own curriculum but Honours is only accessible to those who get high grades and can participate well, which are two problem areas for me,” he explains. 

After switching studies, Alexander has now transferred to the Mandeville Academy, a school for highly gifted people. Jedidja has also found balance in her life to better handle the frustrations caused by her studies. “Exercising is really saving me right now. I have to put my frustration and energy somewhere.”

Theme group for highly gifted people
According to Bloo, after the counsellor meeting about gifted students in December 2021, UU set up a "theme group" in which gifted students can talk about the issues they run into. “At first, the purpose was to take stock of the needs of highly gifted students,” Bloo explains.

The group has now gathered six times. It has been hard to find tangible solutions for their problems, sighs Bloo. “We're talking about a very diverse group. Some students would prefer a different form of examination or would like to make suggestions about how their development should be measured. This requires teachers to be creative, which doesn't always work."

Since giftedness can take many forms and there is no simple solution, gifted students are not considered disabled and therefore do not qualify for special measures, explains Bloo. UU is focusing on the “recognition and acknowledgement” of gifted students, as well as spreading awareness about their needs. “We can always provide a sympathetic ear and try to establish peer support.”

The theme group offers a space where gifted students and people interested in the subject can meet. Bloo says that interest in the group has been growing and the participants are in touch outside of the meetings too. Many of them find the support they need there, according to Bloo. But not everyone benefits from these group conversations. Alexander is one of them. He attended the meetings a few times. Asked what he thought of them, he shrugs and laughs. “We have found peer support and together we can sing a lament.” Although he does acknowledge the importance of peer support, he would prefer the group to be characterised differently. “Let’s morph it into a think tank that creates systemic and creative solutions for gifted people, something that only fellow gifted people can do.” I think that's a good idea.

According to UU project coordinator Tirza Wildeboer, the university would like to be kept in the loop if more input (or more concrete input) arises from the group of gifted students. However, she is cautious: “There are limited possibilities as to what we can do, so we cannot make any promises.” The message remains clear, though: “We would like to hear what you need and that does not only apply to gifted students!"