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‘The Honours Academy is a testing ground’

Pushing the limits and trying things out. The academic year of the Honours Academy started on 10 October and all the speakers encouraged students to jump in at the deep end.

Practical assignments and research

‘The Honours Academy is a testing ground.' This was the opening message given by Ton van Haaften, dean of the Honours Academy, at the start of the new academic year in the Hooglandse Church.  'We give students and school pupils the opportunity to make the most of their talents in a programme that offers them both depth and breadth. The Honours Programme is an extra programme on top of their degree or school subjects, so it's the chance to experiment.' For example, by doing practical assignments at a company or government ministry, and by learning from your own research. In one assignment, school pupils made a study of the noise level at school parties. What they discovered is that the number of decibels is often too high, and can be damaging to hearing.   

Ton van Haaften opening the academic year of the Honours Academy.

Good grades and motivation

This year, 1,100 school pupils and students will be following honours programmes in Leiden. The programmes are very demanding, so the participants are selected on the basis of their grades and motivation. 'Push the boundaries, both in your specific subject and between different disciplines,' Van Haaften advised the students. He then asked neuropsychologist Femke Nijboer to tell the audience about her inspiring research.  'She is the embodiment of an interdisciplinary researcher.' 

Femke Nijboer talking about her contact with people who are more or less completely paralysed.

Locked-in syndrome

‘Who would want to live with locked-in syndrome?’ Nijboer confronted the audience - students but also many parents - with this direct question. She works with medical experts, engineers and designers who develop communication equipment for patients with this syndrome. These patients are more or less completely paralysed and their only means of communication is by blinking their eyes. Fortunately, all kinds of new technologies are becoming available for this group. Nijboer asks them what they think is important. The majority of the people she visited said they were quite happy, which is something the outside world would hardly expect.  

Nijboer demonstrating the Necomimi. The ears of the headset react to brain activity.

Alice in Wonderland

Something else quite unexpected came out of her contacts with this group. Many of the them pointed out the importance of the aesthetic aspect. They don't want eye-catching devices that will make them even more conspicuous. 'They feel as if they are stigmatised enough already.' Nijboer read aloud a passage from  Alice in Wonderland where Alice is blindly chasing the white rabbit without knowing where she will end up. Nijboer did the same in her own career and encourages all students to do the same: 'Go after the white rabbits, dare to choose your own path.' Like Van Haaften, she stressed the importance of interdisciplinary research. It makes it possible for new technologies to be tailored to the medical, social and personal wishes of the people who will be using them.  

From pilot to lawyer

The next speaker, Jan Oudemans, also dared to make headstrong choices. From an early age he dreamed of becoming a pilot and so decided to follow KLM's pilot training programme. At the time, his family and friends thought it was a daring choice. He wasn't able to find a job straight away, so he decided to study Law. Oudemans found the subject so gripping that when a job as a pilot came along later, he turned it down. This decision, too, was met with the question: 'Are you sure you're doing the right thing?'  

Jan Oudemans was trained as a pilot and now studies Law. 

Leiden Leadership Programme

Through his committee work for Minerva he became interested in management and decided to follow the Leiden Leadership Programme of the Honours Academy. Together with fellow students he carried out a practical assignment at ING bank.  The other membes of his group came from a wide range of different programmes, including Medicine and International Studies. He learned a lot from the experience; the other students would take a completely different approach from a Law student; they focused much more on statistics, for example.

Dare to change your goals

That assignment set him off on yet another track. Most Law students expect to work as a lawyer or barrister. Having worked at ING, he is now aiming for a financial position at a bank, and he is doing an internship at ABM AMRO bank in a financial department. He, too, concluded with similar advice to students: 'Don't shy away from new challenges or from changing your goals - even if it does cause your parents a few sleepless nights!' 

(LvP/Photos: André van Haasteren)


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