The worth of a golden key

Benefits of membership still up for debate

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As the school year wraps up, many high-achieving University of Winnipeg (U of W) students will likely receive a surprise letter from the Golden Key International Honour Society. The letter offers lifetime honour society membership to the top-scoring 15 per cent of the student body for a one-time fee.

However, the fact that a quick Google search for “Golden Key Society” results in as many people questioning whether it’s a scam as it does official Golden Key webpages seems to suggest that the letters may raise more questions than answers.

The Golden Key Society was founded in 1977 at Georgia State University. It has since expanded to include members from nine countries, including Canada, India, New Zealand and South Africa. The group bills itself as the world’s largest academic collegiate honour society and purports to award over $500,000 in annual scholarships.

Francine Laurin is the president for the executive committee for Golden Key’s U of W chapter, which was chartered in 2013. The chapter offers three scholarships specific to the school, two of which are only offered to Golden Key members. (These scholarships are paid for through crowdfunding, not Golden Key membership fees.) She says that, in addition to membership and scholarships, the chapter provides valuable services on and off campus.

“Our chapter offers a tutoring service to support all students on campus through their academics,” Laurin says. “We regularly offer workshops to address specific topics, such as resume writing, leadership and conflict resolution, etiquette and more.”

Laurin also says that the chapter is involved in local community work. The U of W chapter offers volunteer opportunities for organizations such as Canadian Blood Services, Siloam Mission, United Way, N.E.E.D.S., Boys and Girls Clubs of Winnipeg and more.

Whether the benefits offered by Golden Key hold any weight beyond looking good on a resume is still up for debate. The exact number of scholarships slated to be given out is unclear. 

The organization lists eight separate awards, scholarships and grants to be awarded in 2017. They vary in value from US$500 to $10,000 and say that “multiple” amounts of each scholarship will be awarded, though how many and to which countries is never specified. The scholarships are also available to fairly specific candidates (students studying abroad or seeking research grants, for example) and may not apply to students being offered membership.

While the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association and U of W academic advising services didn’t respond to The Uniter’s request for comment, a 2013 article by Simon Fraser University’s (SFU) newspaper The Peak detailed broad skepticism toward the society at SFU. 

In that story, SFU registrar and Golden Key advisor Kate Ross doubted the appeal of honour societies in Canadian campus culture, and the school’s student union, Simon Fraser Student Society, stated the same services and seminars are already offered by student unions.

Local actor Heather Krahn joined Golden Key shortly after graduating from the U of W in 2016.

“Honestly, I only accepted it for my resume,” Krahn says. “I don't read any of the emails. I definitely feel like I didn't take the time to understand what I was joining. I just wanted it to look good on paper.”

Danielle Rand, a teacher in the Winnipeg School Division and a U of W graduate, says she declined membership to Golden Key six times. She said the premise behind Golden Key felt too elitist.

“To be in the top 15 per cent of your program, you likely need a lot of time, money and energy to put into school,” Rand says. “People who are at a social disadvantage don't typically have the privilege of spending hundreds of hours studying when they have to work for money and support a family. I didn’t feel like spending $90 to join a club that will continue your access to financial and social privileges and give you more opportunities and contacts I don’t need.”

Published in Volume 71, Number 25 of The Uniter (March 23, 2017)

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