Whenever I draft recommendation letters and offer career advice to students asking for them, I am confronted by a sense of unease. This feeling emerges from the fact that as students prepare for the next stage of their lives (and the uncertainty that comes with it), too many of them fall into the trap of assessing their employability and self-worth by overemphasizing one factor above others: their grades.
There is more to life than grades and employers that are worthwhile know this too. They are increasingly seeking out candidates that have good character and competences like leadership, practical wisdom, civic engagement, compassion, and grit. Unfortunately, doing well on university exams, in and of itself, is not an accurate indicator of whether one possesses those qualities. This brings me to my question: What can the university do better to change this status quo?
Our students already have ample opportunities to get involved in community service, where they can obtain practical knowledge and invaluable experiences; and many of them do take advantage of them by participating in projects like MATCH, Refugee Project Maastricht, and Maastricht Mediation Clinic. Yet, they feel as though their participation in these so-called “extra” curricular activities are not valued on par with their school work.
To balance this out, here is my simple idea: Similar to how the university awards academic distinctions to students (i.e. cum laude on their transcripts), perhaps we can add a distinction for public service on their transcripts as well. While the university does in fact award a very small number of students for their public service during the Opening of the Academic Year, why not have something that is more attainable for a larger percentage of the students?
Of course various problems could arise in implementing this idea: For example, the public service distinction could incentivize students in the wrong way (by motivating them to volunteer just for the sake of getting the distinction, rather than doing something good for the sake of doing something good). Another potential obstacle is how the University would go about setting up the criteria for awarding such a distinction.
While these are valid concerns, they do not entirely discredit the proposal that our university can – and perhaps ought to – better incentivize our students to be more civically engaged. The university can do so by creating the public service distinction, which has the added benefit of conveying an important message to the students that their grades are not the only thing that determines their worth. Because it just isn’t.
Mark Kawakami, Assistant Professor Faculty of Law