The consequences of being gifted at university

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The gifted program may do more harm than good for exceptional students. Julia Duchesne reports on the difficulties faced by students who have to “learn how to learn” when they get to university

Content warning: This article contains mentions of self-harm and suicide ideation. 

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mar Singh, a third-year mathematics student with an option in computer science, was raised to be an overachiever. As a child in Seattle he was tutored by his parents—an electrical engineer and a computer scientist. By Grade 3 he was in a gifted program, and after his family moved to B.C., he skipped Grade 7 and started Grade 8 in a new gifted program. He pushed himself to take more and more advanced classes, thinking, “I want to go faster, I want to be a phenom, I want to be something special, and this is how you do that.”

But by Grade 11, Singh started to feel like an impostor. He was getting into poetry, but in gifted and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, subjects like English were considered “soft skills,” that didn’t lead to valid careers. Only “raw STEM intelligence” was valued—science, technology, engineering and mathematics. 

Despite this, Singh pursued pre-med at University of British Columbia (UBC). He figured the program would be pretty easy, thinking he would just “look at bones”—and it seemed like the obvious next step. Becoming a doctor meant helping people, pleasing his parents and making good money. 

In university, though, Singh struggled. Having mostly coasted through education before, he’d never developed the skills to study and manage the heavier workload. He failed some courses, barely passed others and after two years, he dropped out, watching his gifted peers surpass him. 

Singh says that gifted kids are unlikely to ask for help, given that they’ve been conditioned to believe that they don’t need it. He had the same attitude, growing up. Now, he thinks the way to help gifted kids may be simple. “Stop saying they’re so goddamn smart.”

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he Ontario Ministry of Education defines giftedness as “an unusually advanced degree of general intellectual ability that requires differentiated learning experiences of a depth and breadth beyond those normally provided in the regular school program to satisfy the level of educational potential indicated.” In other words, gifted kids are too smart to learn with the other kids. A typical gifted program operates within a regular public school but separates students from their non-gifted peers. The program offers advanced academics, smaller class sizes and more personalized attention from teachers. All gifted students in Ontario have an Individual Education Plan. 

Adrienne Sauder researches how gifted students adapt to university. Sauder herself was identified as gifted in Grade 3 and now she’s a  sessional instructor at King’s University College at Western University. In her doctoral thesis, a 2015 study of 39 students who had been in gifted programs, Sauder found that these students faced significant challenges at university stemming from their gifted experience.

Firstly, gifted students have to “learn how to learn” in university. Despite being in academically advanced programs, many gifted students are smart enough that they don’t have to work hard in elementary and high school. Then in university, they’re faced with a more difficult work load—but no study skills. Further, they may have never failed an assignment or a midterm until university—so when they do, it can feel catastrophic. Sauder says students can experience a “crisis of self” as their gifted identity, which once set them apart, suddenly feels meaningless. Finally, Sauder says gifted students often struggle in silence. “Because they’ve been told that they’re so smart and so capable for so long, they really struggle to ask for help.”

Gifted programs are supposed to give exceptional students a space to succeed in public education. But some former gifted students say that while they were made to feel smarter than their peers, the program made education more difficult for them in the long run. For many gifted students, coming to university is a struggle as they question their life choices, intelligence and even their identity.

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ody Saturn* and her parents were excited when she got into the gifted program. As a bright child who enjoyed school, she was eager to take on the challenge, while her parents were happy to have a gifted kid. “They almost put me on a pedestal,” she says. 

But her time in the gifted program was anything but glorious: she experienced depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. As for her parents, Saturn says they wish they’d never put her in the class. 

Saturn started the gifted program in Grade 5. She loved the academic challenge, but not the social environment. She was stuck with the same group of 25 kids for four years and says a lot of her classmates had behavioural problems. In Grade 6, several classmates began bullying her. “I’m a very sensitive person, so I guess they noticed that—and they started to target me,” she says. She told her teachers, but felt the school wasn’t taking it seriously. 

On top of the bullying, she struggled with high expectations set by her and her family—if she didn’t understand something, she would get frustrated, second-guess herself and feel like she was disappointing her parents. Depression and anxiety set in. She began self-harming, and by Grade 7, she was having suicidal thoughts. When her parents found out, they tried to get her admitted to a ward. After that, her teachers took a more active role and the bullying ended. Nonetheless, after completing the gifted elementary program in Grade 8, she left for good. 

Saturn believes that isolating gifted kids from their peers can lead to toxic environments—with no “fresh blood,” students learn how to get on each other’s nerves, and tensions build up. When she switched into a music program in Grade 9, she felt relieved not to be stuck with the same people every day. Away from the gifted program, Saturn flourished, learning flute and discovering a passion for science. 

Saturn still deals with anxiety, but after being dimmed by depression during her time in the gifted program, her love of learning is burning brightly again. She’s now excelling in her second year of chemical engineering. If she doesn’t understand something right away, she turns to her friends or her professors rather than getting frustrated. Wearing her Ryerson engineering jacket adorned with various patches, Saturn is already thinking about a master’s of engineering. 

“In the 30 years from when I was a gifted student to now, I think nothing’s changed. And if possible, it’s gotten worse”

Sauder, who is also a learning skills strategist wants gifted kids to have opportunities to exercise their intelligence while also learning how to fail, get back up and continue learning with resilience. But offering enriched curriculum and teaching students how to be resilient takes time—and teachers’ time is scarce. Ontario Premier Doug Ford cut over $40 million from the Toronto District School Board budget in 2019, leading to a loss of almost 300 staff. Province-wide cuts to education will mean increased class sizes, more online courses and less funding for enriched education.

Furthermore, while some students are struggling in gifted, other exceptional kids never even make it to the program. A 2018 study published in the Canadian Journal of Disability Studies found that white, male students whose parents had higher-ranking positions at work had the highest probability of being identified as gifted. “We know that students that have lower socio-economic statuses get less programming,” says Sauder. “And that’s not fair.”

Ideally, every student would have the opportunity to learn in a way that challenges and supports them. Sauder, though, isn’t hopeful that the funding situation in secondary school is going to improve. “In the 30 years from when I was a gifted student to now, I think nothing’s changed. And if possible, it’s gotten worse, because more and more programming is getting cut.” 

Instead, Sauder is thinks there’s space to improve post-secondary education for gifted students. She thinks that they would benefit from a University 101 course covering basic, vital skills such as how to learn, how to fail and how to be resilient in the face of challenges. It could help gifted students before they crash hard enough to admit that they need help. Furthermore, if it was geared towards all students, it would give a leg up to students who didn’t receive enriched programming in high school.

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n Grade 9, Ben Cohen was going through a rebellious phase. As a gifted student at Northern Secondary School, he started skipping class and eventually failed several courses. The gifted program acted swiftly: at the end of Grade 10, he was asked to leave. “I think they have higher academic expectations for people in the program, and when I wasn’t hitting those targets, they were like, ‘Okay, goodbye.’”

At the start of Grade 11, Cohen transferred to SEED, North America’s oldest public alternative secondary school. Alternative schools are typically smaller and more hands-on than regular schools, with a particular focus on subjects like physical art, social justice or entrepreneurship. SEED describes itself as a nurturing, supportive environment for students with high potential. Cohen credits SEED’s schedule of four classes per term for his smooth transition into university, as opposed to the eight classes per term he faced at Northern. Taking a year off, something commonplace at SEED but rare in his gifted program, also helped. “I was super ready for school. More so than I had been in awhile, and I was a bit more motivated.” 

Maura O’Keefe, clinical coordinator at Ryerson’s Centre for Student Development and Counselling, knows how tough the transition to university can be—particularly for students who are used to small class sizes and one-on-one support. She says these students can feel more overwhelmed by having to work independently in the university setting.

Students who performed well in advanced high school programs often expect to keep doing well in university, but O’Keefe cautions against making that assumption. She advises students to focus on choosing the program that fits into their life and career goals.

Cohen says many of his gifted peers from high school went on to “have really spectacular academic careers,” going into programs like engineering and pre-med. For them, it works, but he’s grateful that he ended up on a different path. In Grade 12 his friend asked him to write an article about alternative schools for his school newspaper. It spanned into a three-part series. Cohen enjoyed writing it so much that he realized “I could probably do this for the rest of my life, if someone paid me to.” 

As it turns out, he found his calling: four years later, he’s set to graduate from Ryerson’s journalism school. 

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fter dropping out of UBC, Amar Singh took a year off before going to Carleton University to try a philosophy degree. He enjoyed it, but later transferred to Ryerson to pursue a path that he was more certain would lead to a financially sustainable career. Now, he’s planning to work as a programmer to support his stand-up comedy career “until [he’s] famous or dead.”

Singh is ambivalent about his experience of being gifted. On one hand, it gave him confidence when he was treated like he was smarter than everyone else. On the other hand, Singh says that the gifted program gives you “a terrible sense of arrogance which will carry you through the world.” 

He wishes the program encouraged students to branch out beyond STEM, so that when people like him realize they don’t actually want to be a doctor, they know what else is out there. Singh, for example, didn’t discover his love of standup until after graduating from the gifted program. 

At the very least, his time as a gifted student makes for a good punchline. “Gifted program?” he quips. “The only gift I got was a superiority complex!”

*Name has been changed for anonymity. 

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