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The Ethical Choices Every College Freshman Must Face

How much should I party? How do I break up with the person I’m dating? What kind of an ethical obligation do I have to my parents? Should I use stimulants to help me study?

These are some of the ethical choices and questions every college student faces, says Kirk O. Hanson, Ph.D., executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

Hanson and his team of ethicists commissioned ten students from ten university campuses to interview about 50 of their friends each and write up cases about ethical dilemmas students face during freshman year in college. Among the most common questions that surfaced are:

  • How much am I going to study or party?
  • My dad wants me to be a doctor. Do I have an obligation to be a doctor?
  • How does my behavior affect my roommate?
  • My friend passed out after a night of drinking. Should I call for help and risk getting her in trouble?
  • What is my responsibility for the feelings of the person with whom I’m having an intimate relationship?
  • Should I cheat on a paper or an exam?
  • Should I take Adderall to help me power through final exam week?
  • Should I lie about who I am to impress friends?
  • Is it wrong to reject religion or explore a different one?
  • How should I regard people who think differently or have different backgrounds?

All college students aged 18 to 21 struggle with these questions and many more, because they’re at a time in their life when they’re learning about themselves and the world, says Hanson.

A university can influence how a student makes ethical decisions, but it cannot control the student. There’s a fine line between influencing and dismissing. That’s why many parents who try to control their sons or daughters end up facing more resistance, says Hanson. It’s the same problem on college campuses.

“Universities are always working to find ways to lead students to ask certain kinds of questions productively,” says Hanson. “It’s a delicate task, though. If you get too heavy with it, students run in the other direction.”

There’s no doubt that a school must set community standards, but it cannot dictate everything about a student’s private behavior. Instead, colleges create safety nets and support systems, so that students can get help before, during, or after making an ethical decision.

Santa Clara University provides a variety of support systems and safety nets. Students can contact on-campus EMTs who are fellow students, for any medical attention such as alcohol poisoning to injuries sustained in an accident. Psychological counseling and crisis hotlines are now available 24 hours.

Parents can also do the same at home, even if they’re thousands of miles away. Hanson says:

  • let them know that they’re facing lots of new situations and that it’s a part of life
  • let them know you’re available to talk about any of these situations or decisions
  • encourage them to talk to others on campus and in the family
  • encourage them to use resources on campus, such as residence assistants, resident ministers, professors, etc.
  • ask without stress how things are going with friends, with studying, with their social life, their roommates, etc.

The key for parents Hanson says his putting students in an environment that make them think about what’s going on in their lives.

“It’s better than being in an environment where there’s no thought at all,” says Hanson.

About the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Founded in 1986, the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics has grown into one of the four most active university-based ethics centers in the United States. The center at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, Calif., is a nationally recognized resource for people and organizations that want to study and apply an ethical approach to decision-making. The center supports research, assists faculty in integrating ethics into their courses and helps businesses, schools, hospitals and other organizations put ethics to work. Ethics center programs include: biotechnology and health care ethics; business ethics; K-12 character education; philosophical questions in applied ethics, public policy and government ethics, and emerging issues in ethics.

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