Alumni Stories

Exploring Ethics

Elmhurst students use words and images to illuminate the human stories at the core of ethical problems.

The essay that earned Michael Olsson first prize this year in Elmhurst’s annual William A. Nelson Ethics in the Profession Contest tells the story of a shattered life.

Olsson, a business administration major from Oak Lawn, got to know a 44-year-old man named Ken through a service project he did for a communication studies class.

“Ken looked like just another guy; he looked like someone who could easily fit in with my own family at Thanksgiving dinner,” Olsson wrote in his essay. Ken’s story, though, would change the way Olsson thought about his own life, and about society’s responsibilities to its members.

Ken was diagnosed as HIV-positive after being beaten and raped in prison. Upon his release, he found himself shunned by his own family, unable to secure a job, and rejected for disability coverage by the Social Security Administration.

But as grim as Ken’s story is, Olsson found in it the seeds of inspiration. In his prize-winning essay, he explained how Ken came to grips with his fractured world. And he wrote that Ken’s story motivated him to think about the ways people deal with upheaval in their lives. Encouraging students to delve into ethical issues in original and thought-provoking ways is what the William A. Nelson Ethics in the Profession Contest is all about. The contest’s creator, Bill Nelson ’68, said he hoped to encourage students to think about the role of ethics in their future careers. Nelson teaches at Dartmouth College’s Geisel School of Medicine and Tuck School of Business and at New York University.

“It’s not just window dressing or icing on the cake, but a core ingredient,” Nelson said. “Ethics is very important, whether you are a school teacher, a clergyperson, a physician or some other professional.”

Since 2003, the contest has inspired dozens of students to explore ethics through a variety of media—from a play about gay marriage to a visual art piece inspired by the Enron scandal to poetry and photo essays. The 2012 contest winners continued in that diverse tradition. Olsson’s winning essay combined poetry and prose; he said he hoped it would help others understand that AIDS is “not a gay disease or a drug-user disease but a human disease” that can affect anyone.

The inspiration for an essay on pain management in older adults, by second-place winner Allison Pietrusiewicz, came from the writer’s own home.

I grew up living with my grandmother. As she has aged and her health problems have become more complex, she experiences nearly constant pain,” said Pietrusiewicz, a nursing major from Des Plaines. “Seeing her suffer inspired me to do more research on why older adults often do not receive adequate pain medication.”

Nurses have an ethical responsibility to respect the worth, dignity and human rights of all individuals, Pietrusiewicz noted in her essay, and proper pain management can ensure that older adults maintain their independence and ability to function. Untreated pain can lead to depression, social withdrawal, higher health care costs and other adverse consequences.

“Ethical issues and the stance one takes are important to examine because this affects practice and decision-making,” she said, adding that the stated mission of the College’s Deicke Center for Nursing Education is to prepare nurses for ethical practice and leadership.

For third-place winner Angela Cichosz, a psychology major from Carol Stream, the contest presented an opportunity to explore ethical questions while pursuing her interest in creative writing. She wrote a satirical poem that examined the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Her poem, “Wandering Eyes,” tells the story of an office Romeo who habitually harasses women, finally losing his job for blatant sexual advances toward a new employee.

Nelson, who met with some of this year’s contestants in March during his stint as an alumnus-in-residence at the College, has made a career of convincing professionals that ethical behavior is not only the right thing to do, but also good for business.

Nelson, who taught health care ethics at Elmhurst during several January Terms, said he has been interested in ethics in health care ever since he served as a hospital chaplain while he was as a theology student. That experience led him to teach a medical ethics course and earn a doctorate in applied ethics. He went on to a career at the Veterans Administration, where he became chief of ethics education services for the National Center for Ethics in Health Care.

“If you don’t treat your consumer in accord with basic ethical values, eventually you are going to suffer for it,” he said. “When ethical problems occur, you really need to address them, figure out how they happened and prevent them from happening again.”

Trying to cover up unethical behavior through deception eventually backfires, Nelson added, and the consequences are often worse.

“When it does come out it becomes a more problematic issue because it erodes basic trust. People wonder, ‘What else aren’t they telling me?’”

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