Every September, the top 15 per cent of SFU students in their program receive a letter from the Golden Key International Honours Society, a non-profit organization, happily inviting them to join the society for the chance to participate in workshops, attend conferences, and apply for scholarships, for a one time fee of $90. Once a student has joined the society, they are a member for life. They count former US president Bill Clinton among their honorees.
For many students, the letters appear out of nowhere, and are received with a bout of skepticism. Top comments on in the SFU subreddit of popular social media site Reddit about the society read, “Scam. Don’t do it,” “Hey, you’re smart enough to do well in school, are you dumb enough to join this society?” and “Not quite a scam, but not worth your time and money.”
One of the more forgiving comments reads, “Be honoured that you are in fact in the top 15 [per cent] of your major, but I would not join unless you really want extracurricular activities. Most of the people online said that they gained nothing from joining and it was not really worth it.”
The letters are sent out from the office of SFU Registrar Kate Ross, who acts as the advisor to the SFU Golden Key chapter, along with Kim Thee, Student Life Educator and Leadership Programming.
“They’ve been around a long time . . . and they really are like a club in many many ways,” said Ross. “They actually do a lot in order to actually be involved as a Golden Key chapter, there are a variety of things that they have to do to achieve a certain status, and it’s really around service and leadership.”
Top comments on Reddit read “Scam. Don’t do it.” and “Not quite a scam, but not worth your time and money.”
The SFU chapter of Golden Key has been around since 2000, and over 5000 SFU students have joined Golden Key since then, most of which are now alumni members. According to Ian Sankey, the director of Golden Key in Canada, approximately 400 SFU students join the society each year. At $90 per student, Golden Key receives approximately $36,000 from new SFU members per year.
The international organization started in 1977 and came to Canada in 1997. It now boasts chapters at universities in eight countries: Canada, the US, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, India, the Bahamas, and Malaysia.
The current co-residents of the SFU chapter are Andreas Hovland and Victoria Harraway, who will lead the chapter for this year. When asked why he chose to join Golden Key, Hovland said, “I believe in the three pillars of Golden Key. They are academic excellence, community service and leadership. I think that the work being done by the Golden Key chapters around the world is truly inspiring and wanted to be a part of this within our own community.”
Ross acknowledged the mistrust that students may feel towards Golden Key, and pointed to the fact that the idea of an honours society is very much an American concept. “You don’t know how many times I’ve actually said to [Golden Key], you know the honours society doesn’t work in Canada,” Ross said. “Elitism doesn’t work well in Canada.”
She mentioned that Golden Key’s Canadian partners have even suggested changing the name to the Golden Key Leadership Organization, or something along those lines, in order to appear less elitist to students.
Activities of the SFU chapter include book drives, clothing drives, networking events, and volunteer projects for Nanook Daycare and Charles Best Secondary School. The chapter receives approximately $5,000 each year from Golden Key to “support chapter activities and community service projects,” according to Sankey. In recent years, SFU students have also been the recipients of some of the larger scholarships offered by Golden Key, in amounts up to $10,000.
For Moe Kopahi, Member Services Officer of the Simon Fraser Student Society (SFSS), Golden Key’s practices are “nonsense.” Kopahi compared the services provided to students by Golden Key as very similar to those provided by the SFSS. He also mentioned that the SFU chapter of Golden Key has previously applied to become a club of the SFSS, but was denied due to the elitist nature of the organization.
“I have no question about the legitimacy of Golden Key, but compared to the services that the SFSS provides, as the official representative of SFU students, it’s not legitimate,” said Kopahi. “We do the same seminars, we do all these different things, and if the students want to see something, they come to us and we find the funding to make it happen.”