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Young leaders from Willmar, Minn.-area schools tackle ethics questions

Connor Haugen works with six other students Wednesday during an ethics workshop at the MinnWest Technology Campus. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- At a workshop Wednesday, 66 juniors and seniors from the Willmar and New London-Spicer high schools learned that in the real world, ethical problems can be much more complicated than right versus wrong.

The intense, all-day ethics workshop is part of a project started by the Eagan Rotary Club 20 years ago for Eagan schools, which eventually expanded to other schools in the Twin Cities. The curriculum was developed by the business ethics department at the University of St. Thomas.

This year, the Eagan Rotary decided to offer the workshop at several Greater Minnesota schools. The Willmar Rotary Club partnered with the Eagan club to sponsor the workshop.

"Ethics is a very complicated subject that's often oversimplified," said Dana Rucker, foundation chairman for the Willmar Rotary Club.

"Students in this workshop are learning about several aspects of conscience and honesty. It's taking place in a corporate setting, but it is, at its core, a moral issue."

The 66 students who participated in the workshop were chosen by staff at the Willmar and New London-Spicer high schools as some of the most promising emerging leaders of their junior and senior classes.

At the workshop, students sat together in groups of six, with each student acting as an officer for a fictitious company. The corporation, called Pogo Inc., faced some scathing ethical allegations regarding the working conditions of the company's Indonesian plant.

After working together to devise a plan for the company, each student CEO presented their group's strategy to the rest of the room and answered questions from other students acting as reporters, shareholders or company employees.

"This was a unique opportunity to work with a local club and discuss an interesting topic," said Caroline Bell, a junior at Willmar High School who participated in the workshop. "Ethics is a subject we don't touch on a lot at school, but it needs to be addressed."

One of Bell's group members, Mykaela Henrickson, said she took away much more than a business lesson from the workshop.

"It taught me that when faced with a situation, you should keep your mind open to all the different options and consequences," said Henrickson, a junior at Willmar High School. "You should think of others and how it will affect them before you think of yourself."

Three Eagan Rotary members moderated the workshop and spent the morning presenting on ethics information and real-life ethical dilemmas. One of the presenters, Jim Overocker, has 40 years of business experience with Lockheed Martin in St. Paul.

"We are really touching young lives with this program," Overocker said. "We're trying to help students establish a moral compass. We hope to give them the tools they'll need to deal with ethical problems in the future and make better choices."

Overocker said that his generation has not always done a good job of modeling ethics and morals to the younger generations. After working with high school students at these workshops across Minnesota, he said he's hopeful that their generation will do better.

"These kids are so smart," Overocker said. "If I wasn't optimistic about this generation, I would quit doing this. We always walk away from these workshops saying, 'Our future's in good hands.'"

Ashley White

Ashley White is the community content coordinator for the West Central Tribune. Follow her on Twitter @Ashley_WCT.

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