It’s no small feat to solve a problem correctly when, theoretically, there’s no right or wrong answer. But a group of doctoral students in William & Mary’s Counselor Education program recently did just that — at least according to the American Counseling Association (ACA), the world’s largest membership organization for counseling professionals.
Keosha Branch, Brian Kooyman, Clay Martin and Becky Sheffield, all first and second year Ph.D. students, recently took home top honors in the ACA’s annual Graduate Student Ethics Competition, which presents teams of students with ethical dilemmas and charges them with identifying the issues, weighing the pros and cons of multiple solutions and then justifying a course of action.
The students learned about the competition through Eleni Honderich, a William & Mary visiting professor in counselor education and the faculty advisor for the team. As a doctoral student, Honderich was part of the first W&M team to win the competition in 2014.
“Ethical codes generally speak to moral principles within our field, such as our responsibility to protect our clients and support growth,” said Honderich. “There are lots of gray areas, and multiple answers to an ethics issue might be justified.”
Only one team at the doctoral level from each university (and one at the master’s level) is allowed to enter the competition each year. This win marks W&M’s second time taking home the grand prize for doctoral students. The W&M master’s team placed second this year.
“We learn about ethical codes as students, but this exercise gave us the opportunity to apply that knowledge where it really counts,” said Sheffield. “As counselors, we’re dealing with human emotions every day, so it’s really important for us to get it right so we don’t harm our clients.”
The contest starts with a fictional scenario involving multiple characters. This year’s dilemma involved a student in a counselor education program who was exhibiting aggression toward his girlfriend, colleagues and teachers, potentially causing harm, while the faculty turned a blind eye to his distress.
“One of the first things we looked at was danger — where might there be harm and how might we address that immediately,” said Kooyman.
To evaluate the ethical dilemmas, the team consulted a range of materials, including the ACA’s Code of Ethics, the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision’s Best Practices List and various other codes that cover topics from institutional policies to accreditation policies. Because those involved were students, counselors, educators and supervisors, the characters in the scenario would have been subject to multiple sources of ethical codes.
“What made it really difficult was that no one in this situation was really wearing a white hat — everyone involved had stepped over the line and done questionable things,” said Martin. “Everyone had to be corrected or analyzed in their own specific fashion.”
While everyone agreed the student (who was also a counselor in his internship program) was behaving in a blatantly unethical way, a professor had also potentially crossed a boundary by going behind the student’s back to obtain information about his care at another treatment agency without his permission.
“The student was a client of the agency which afforded him certain protections that were violated,” said Martin. “So even though his behavior was not beyond reproach, he had rights that were not respected.”
Citing information they’d obtained in a journal article, the team considered the option that, based on the student’s overly aggressive behavior, the professor and the agency may have had the option to override some of the stipulations if the student’s clients were at risk of harm, which wasn’t specified in the scenario.
“That was definitely one of those gray areas,” said Sheffield. “I think they threw a lot of those into the scenario to make us think and reflect on what’s provided in the ethical codes.”
According to the team, that complexity reflects what would happen in a real-life ethical situation. By considering several courses of action and bouncing ideas off of each other in a collaborative setting, the exercise made them see and learn things they might not have considered prior to the competition.
“That’s the advantage of doing this as a group,” said Branch. “As we discussed the scenario together, it helped us to see the different angles of what was happening and to really come up with a comprehensive suggestion for what needed to be done ethically.”
Honderich says that, in addition to the paper being beautifully written, she believes it’s the depth in which the team addressed the various ethical issues and their complexity that ultimately led to their award-winning paper.
“Being that ACA is the premier counseling organization, this is something that will stand out on their resumes,” said Honderich. “It really shows a grasp of the importance of ethics in the profession.”