Category Archives: Ethics Symposium

19th Annual Ethics Symposium Held on February 15 at Monona Terrace

submitted by Joyce Bromley

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On this very day (February 15th), 2418 years after the city of Athens sentenced Socrates to death for corrupting the minds of youth and for impiety (399 BC), Rotary had the audacity to hold its 19th annual Ethics Symposium in the City of Madison.  President Jason Beren gave a heartwarming welcome and an overview of the many ways Rotary contributes to the betterment of the world.  He invited students to become a part of Rotary beginning with Interact.

Nearly 200 students representing 11th graders from 19 area high schools met at the Monona Terrace to learn how to think about issues beyond their own welfare—and how to act ethically.  Students were assigned to various groups throughout the Symposium.  This scramble allowed them to have discussions with students from various backgrounds.  Students represented large urban schools and smaller schools, some from rural areas; students whose families are first generation immigrants, or are themselves immigrants; privileged and underprivileged; well-represented in society and others who feel under-represented; and students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

We are faced with dilemmas every day.  Some dilemmas are large, some are small; some are personal, some involve a community; some require an immediate response and some take time to resolve.  Many are gut-wrenching and can either strengthen a relationship or destroy it.  Some keep you in a group, others make you an outsider.  Often dilemmas do not have a right or wrong answer.  Ethics training provides a framework to analyze how to arrive at a socially beneficial action.

Our own Rotarian, Anthony Gray, CEO of the Institute for Global Ethics, led the call and over 50 volunteers carried the Rotary virtual “banner.”  Among the Rotarians were seasoned ethicists who had worked with the Symposium for several years, and those who joined for the first time.  We were privileged to be trained in an ethical approach prior to the Symposium.  This training provided a well-organized process for the day and helped us utilize each session—essential for each breakout group of 20 students.  You cannot fool students. They would know if we had been unprepared.  Clearly, we passed the test.

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The warm-up to ethics training began with performances by college students from the Edgewood College Theatre.  These topics introduced dilemmas related to how to make transgender students safe in locker rooms; effects of racial profiling; and a reaction to a request for a job recommendation.

Students I interviewed as they arrived in the morning had a variety of reasons for attending the Symposium.  Some were encouraged to attend, because it would look good on college applications. Others were open to a new experience–they wanted an opportunity to engage with other students beyond their own environment, as well as to learn how to reflect on leaders’ speeches. And many had altruistic reasons.  Most students expressed an interest in caring about people and wanting to find ways to work together to find better solutions to life’s uncertainties.  One expression was powerful: “This is now “our” world, and we need to know how to define it better.”

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Using the Rotary framework these students were presented with dilemmas, and they practiced how to conduct themselves by using standard behavior toward others.  Initially, they were asked to report their “gut reaction.”  Then they began to use the “ethics skills set” in the framework for analysis.  In the end they reported their “final decision.”

  • Recognize an ethical issue—a dilemma cannot be solved until it can be identified.
  • Obtain information about the situation—get facts and collect data.
  • Test alternative actions from various perspectives in 4 stages:  Stage 1: What action benefits me most? (Egoism); Stage 2: What actions do my friends or group members think I should do? (Social Group Relativism); Stage 3: What action would produce the greatest amount of good & the least amount of harm? (Utilitarian); and Stage 4: What action best respects the rights and dignity of each person? (Rights—What will be fair to all concerned?)
  • Act consistently using your best judgment with the data/facts available.
  • Reflect on your decision. Be willing to adjust a decision as you obtain more data/facts and reactions of others.
  • Yield on your ethical judgments, these will govern your conduct and become your character.

The dilemmas presented in the Symposium were issues from actual school board records.  They included cheating, racial disparity, and violence in schools.

This generation of students has lived with principles of “duck and cover;” that is, how to conduct themselves when an “intruder” is in or near their school and their school is in “lock-down.”  This is evasive language which really means, if someone exhibits threatening (even life threatening—e.g. an armed person) behavior, drills are used to teach students and teachers what they each can do for protection.

The final dilemma of the day concerned a proposal to have teachers with a concealed carry license and annual additional mandatory training with local police to voluntarily carry guns to school.  Would this make schools safer or give students the perception of being safer?  In this exercise, each student was to put herself/himself in the role of a student representative on the school board and represent the student body.  After the discussion that included arguments for and against the proposal, the representative had to vote.  In the session that I attended, of the 18 students, the “student body” voted 17:1 to reject the proposal and maintain the current “no firearms” policy.  The trauma these students expressed, and continue to feel, about the gunfire they experienced has defined their high school education.  Eventually, the student who would initially vote to allow teachers to carry guns under these circumstances was willing to consider other safety measures that could be put in place instead of guns.  The value of this exercise, and all of the others throughout the Symposium, was that students felt safe in expressing their shift in thinking.  Many students shifted from their “gut-reaction” when they reported their final decision.

Teachers recognize that much of their own learning comes from their students.  This was certainly true at the Ethics Symposium.  By the end of the Symposium, students were asked their reaction.  Their experiences were wider than “this will be good on my college application” (which it undoubtedly would be) to the benefit of having their views validated.  They appreciated that the Symposium was not a lecture course, where they were told how they were to do something. They struggled with topics and had to engage in dynamic groups, sometimes with others from very different life experiences.  They appreciated the respect they received from offering different perspectives.

Some may accuse Rotary of impiety because these students were not entirely satisfied with the status quo.  If teaching these students how to think rather than what to think is corrupting the minds of youth—then we would certainly be guilty.  We came away with the satisfaction that these students feel they have obtained tools to help them practice ethical behavior.  Dan Mahoney, Counselor at Memorial High School, and a staunch supporter of the Rotary Interact Program, said that over the years, he has witnessed the value of the Ethics Symposium.  For students who attend, it has been life-changing (and for the good).

18th Annual Rotary Ethics Symposium Held Feb. 16 at Monona Terrace:  Learning the “Right Way to React”

Submitted by Carole Trone; photos by Margaret Murphy

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“Oh, I like your pin!” exclaimed Sun Prairie High School student Thomas Collins. Thomas had interrupted his own polite response to my question about why he had signed up for this year’s Annual Rotary Ethics Symposium. Thomas and more than 200 other fellow high school juniors from 23 area high schools gathered on Friday, February 16, 2018, for the 18th Annual Rotary Ethics Symposium, underwritten by the Madison Rotary Foundation. Thomas and fellow classmate Jacob Monforte readily confirmed that Rotary was a familiar organization to them as they rattled off different community events that they had participated in. The Ethics Symposium, however, drew their particular interest. They jumped at the chance to sign up because it was important to them to learn “the right way to react.” Conversations with many other students that day confirmed that these young people were seeking guidance. No strangers to difficult situations, Friday’s gathering of students from across the Madison area embraced the opportunity to learn more about ethics and from each other.

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This year’s Rotary Ethics Symposium chair was Dave Scher, who coordinated the day’s program with the help of 20 fellow Rotarians and the Rotary office staff. For the planning committee, this day was the culmination of months of discussions about the most effective ways to share the Rotary ethical framework through scenarios that were ethically complex and would resonate with high school students. The thoughtful planning paid off. Members of the Edgewood College Theatre Group started the morning by acting out three different ethical dilemmas: 1) a group classroom project where one student slacked off; 2) a dilemma about whether a sports team should kneel during the national anthem; and 3) reporting a felony conviction on a college application form. Many different students shared their responses and judgments to follow-up questions skillfully posed by members of the Edgewood College Theatre Group. Notably, not every comment uniformly confirmed the same judgments, but every comment was met with respect by the large group of peers. Unconditional respect was one of several discussion ground rules outlined in the program and stressed by the Rotary facilitators, and students readily complied.

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Students buzzed with conversation as they left this large gathering and regrouped for the next three sessions. For the remainder of the morning, students gathered in smaller groups of about 18-20 students for about 55 minutes per session to explore and discuss three different dilemmas: 1) a sexting scenario; 2) a student-teacher equality ratio policy; and 3) the ethics of taxing soda and sugary drinks. Students worked through the dimensions of each dilemma by applying the Rotary framework for Ethical Decision-Making:

     Recognize an Ethical Issue
     Obtain Information about the situation
     Test Alternative Actions
     Act Consistently
     Reflect on your Decision After Acting
     Yield on your Ethical Judgments

The planning committee strategically assigned students to specific sessions in order to connect as many different students from different schools as possible. “Mixing it up” proved to bring one of the most valued dimensions of the day. Megan Andrews of Middleton High School shared that this was her second year of participating because of scheduling conflict for a junior who was unable to attend last year. Megan sought out the chance to attend this year because she found the mix of other ideas from other students to be so insightful. Other students I talked to also felt that the new connection to students from other schools was a highlight of the day. These students craved the chance to learn more about other schools and students who were so close and yet completely unknown to them. One Monona Grove High School student marveled that it was the Symposium that actually connected her to a rich conversation with a La Follette student, “and we’re just down the road from each other!”

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Building stronger relationships in our community is at the core of Rotary and so it’s not surprising that the Ethics Symposium has attracted many faithful Rotarian volunteers over the years. Rotary member Karla Thennes laughed when I asked her why she volunteered. “Well, last year a member of my Porchlight board suggested that I participate, but after that first year I didn’t need any nudging. The kids are amazing! I don’t remember being challenged like this when I was in school. The students who gather here are leaders—you see a real overlap between the students here at the Symposium and the students who are awarded Rotary scholarships.”

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Fellow Rotarian Stacy Nemeth agreed. Stacy has volunteered for at least the past eight years of the Symposium, adding that “it’s my favorite Rotarian day of the year.” Stacy has chaired the committee in the past and served this year as a session facilitator with Karla. It’s a big time commitment on a weekday, but with rewards that are so much greater. “You hear so many negatives about today’s youth but then you come here and realize that we’re all going to be fine with these students in charge.” Stacy also observed that it’s a one-day event that returns so much throughout Dane County. “These students go back to their schools with this new knowledge and they share it with their classmates. It’s such a valuable and unique contribution that Rotary brings to the schools.”

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Lunchtime conversations confirmed Stacy’s point. Students from several participating high schools noted that they had no opportunities to have these kinds of discussions in their busy school lives. They valued the time to reflect and also the time to talk and learn from each other. Rotarian Michelle McGrath’s post-lunch invitation for students to share what they learned readily confirmed how much students gained from the day. Dozens of students shared comments like, “I learned that there’s a lot more to consider than your gut,” and “Sometimes what is easy to do is not always right.” With cell phones in remarkably little use at any point during the day, it was clear that students were hungry for this kind of engagement.

For more photos, visit our club’s Facebook page.

Also, Neil Heinen featured our Ethics Symposium during his February 16th editorial on Channel 3000.  Click to watch it.    

Fostering Ethical Decision Making

–submitted by Ben Hebebrand; photos by John Bonsett-Veal and Mike Wenzel

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Almost 250 11th grade students from 20 different Madison area high schools met for the 16th annual Rotary Club of Madison Ethics Symposium on Friday, Feb. 19 at Monona Terrace in Madison, affirming at the culminating luncheon the need not just for adolescents but all of us to “think all the way through decisions.” This kind of thinking, the students expressed, could be enhanced by discussing dilemmas with others including those whom we do not know and those who are different than us.

“Discussing issues with others can broaden your viewpoint,” said Katie Feller of La Follette High School. “It’s interesting to see how people can change their view (by thinking and talking it through),” added Liz Dominguez of Marshall High School.

DSC_0012The five-hour symposium kicked off with real-life reminders that ethical decisions abound throughout history and contemporary life. Steve Johannsen, the 2016 Rotary Ethics Symposium Chair, reminded students that the day was a significant date in history as US President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack, authorizing the deportation of Japanese Americans to internment camps. “It is a decision that is still being discussed today,” he said, leaving “tacit” the current political dialogue on the Syrian refugee crisis and immigration.

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It was a group of UW students by name of “First Wave Hip Hop Theater” that in the opening session framed and underscored the importance of ethics by its artistic representations of the Holocaust, slavery (particularly vivid  and thought-provoking through a simulation of a public whipping of a slave), police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement with particular reference to the Madison protests in the wake of the March 5, 2015, police shooting of 19-year-old Tony Terrell Robinson, Jr. First Wave is comprised of a diverse group of UW students, all of whom are part of the first university scholarship program in the U.S. centered on the spoken word and hip-hop culture. The group’s performance helped the assembled 11th grade students indeed grasp how ethics not only shape individual lives but instead entire cultures and societies.

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In three separate breakout sessions of about 20 students each, the high school students with the aid of a Rotary facilitator discussed the ethical implications of adolescent alcohol use and the potential for drunk driving, affirmative action directed toward youth of color, and the use of a locker room by a transgender student  who has not had gender reassignment surgery. Many of the students remarked not only how timely these topics were, but also incredibly important for them to discuss.

The three sessions not only provided rich dialogue among the high school students, but also introduced them to a hierarchy of moral and ethical thinking. Students initially were challenged to record their gut decision, and subsequently made decisions through the lens of “egoism” (What Action Will Benefit Me the Most?); “social group relativism” (What Action Do My Friends or Group Members Think I should Do?); Utilitarianism (What Action Would Produce the Greatest Amount of Good and the Least Amount of Harm?); and the “Right Approach” (What Action Will Best Respect the Rights and Dignity of Each Person?).

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Photo 1: Denis Collins & Melanie Ramey; Photo 2: Mike Casey and Rotary District Governor Mary Van Hout; Photo 3: Karen Christianson & Ben Hebebrand

“We want the students to think about these stages. Our goal is to lead them toward the Rights Approach,” said Denis Collins, who, as a Business Ethics Professor at Edgewood College, has lent his expertise to the symposium since its inception. “Creating a forum and a framework in a safe setting with new acquaintances,” is what defines the essence of the symposium, according to Johannsen. Affirming the sense of safety was a student speaker who proclaimed that “sometimes, but not today, our opinions get discounted.”

The sense of safety is no accident. All Rotarian facilitators underwent a five-hour training session, stressing ground rules best summarized by the mandate that participants need to “treat every single person with complete and unconditional respect.” The training for the facilitators included a presentation by local psychologist Dr. David Lee on “LGBTQ Discussion on Transgender and Identity Issues.”

The symposium also offered accompanying teachers and principals the opportunity to ponder possibilities to introduce further outlets for students to discuss ethical dilemmas. Rotarian Bob Shumaker pointed out that often it is the kids who bring back to their schools the need and desire for further ethics education. “Belleville High School kids created an Ethics program,” he said. “The kids created and gave their teachers ethical dilemmas relating to student discipline and assessment of student work.”

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Education, including learning about an ethical framework for decision-making, is of course enlightening. Thomas Mulholland of East High School summed it up this way: “Apathy is dangerous; ignorance is more dangerous.” Equally uplifting was an impromptu remark by a student during the public comment session that “after today, we can still have faith in humanity.”

The 15th Annual Rotary Ethics Symposium Expands Students’ Bandwidth for Ethical Decision Making!

–submitted by Maggie Peterman; photos by Donna Beestman and John Bonsett-Veal

Stacy Nemeth, Chair of 2015 Ethics Symposium Committee

Stacy Nemeth, Chair of 2015 Ethics Symposium Committee

More than 200 students from 18 Dane County high schools were challenged to examine the decisions they make every day in a new way Friday, February 27, at the 15th annual Rotary Ethics Symposium at Monona Terrace.

With dramatic performances on edgy teenage issues – teenage pregnancy and a father confronting his adolescent son about drug use – members of the UW-Madison First Wave Hip Hop Theater, a cosmopolitan multicultural artistic program, set the stage for high school students.

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And First Wave led the students through the R-O-T-A-R-Y Framework for Ethical Decision Making, which is a six-step process of thinking through a dilemma and making a decision.

Then the high schoolers went to work. They were confronted with two dilemmas: Hostile Messages and an Affirmative Action Proposal.

“It was fun to be able to discuss realistic problems,” said Desmond Lawrence, 17, a junior at Madison’s Memorial High School, following the workshop. “I like that they (Rotarians) want us to reach out to our own high schools to get these (workshops) going.”

Rotary members along with participants from Rotaract clubs at UW-Madison and Edgewood College led the workshops. Students learned the ground rules, which emphasized: “Treat every single person in the room with complete and unconditional respect.”

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“I liked that whatever you had to say, you were going to be respected,” noted a student from Belleville High School. “It was nice to see that my friends had a serious side.”

“The coolest thing of all,” said a student from Monona Grove High School, “someone from my school and I, we had different opinions and we still like each other.”

The ROTARY Framework for Ethical Decision Making is as follows:

R = Recognize an ethical issue
O = Obtain information about the situation and others’ interests and perceptions
T = Test alternative actions from various perspectives
A= Act consistently with your best judgment
R = Reflect on your decision after acting
Y = Yield to your ethical judgments

Students dispersed into workshops to learn the practical application of the Rotary Framework. The sessions were designed to group together students from a variety of high schools.

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“Once students were in the smaller groups, they were willing to delve into the issues,” said Sophie Chadli, 17, a senior at Madison’s Shabazz High School.

At first, many participants felt isolated. They later discovered a new-found freedom as they listened to each other and even gained the confidence to rethink their stand.

“When we were doing the panel on affirmative action, others’ opinions changed mine about certain things,” said Dominique Taylor, 16, a junior at Middleton’s Clark Street Community School. “Me and some other students want to inform our teachers about the process so we can start training and recommend (the Ethics Symposium) to other students.”

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It was a new learning experience, most students agreed.

“I really enjoyed today,” said a student from Madison’s East High School. “It’s something that will stick with me. It’s a tradition that will keep on giving. I met lots of new people.”

The students’ willingness and enthusiasm to embrace a new experience impressed Rotary leaders.

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Sarah Gempeler, 20, a junior at Edgewood College and a Rotaract member, grew up in Monroe, a south-central Wisconsin city of about 45,000 residents.

“It’s great to see how passionate these kids are about (relevant) issues,” Gempler said. “I grew up in a town where there wasn’t much diversity in our high school.”

A first-time volunteer for the symposium, Janet Piraino, a Rotary member and district director for a Wisconsin representative, praised the next generation of Wisconsin voters.

“This is my first time and I’m blown away by their ability to stand their ground,” she said. “There were students of color on both sides of an issue that spoke very passionately for their position. One African American girl spoke in opposition to affirmative action because she felt it didn’t honor equality.”

Discussions on controversial topics showed that students are listening and collecting information as they go about their daily lives, said Steve Johannsen, a Rotary member and Madison business advisor.

“The (affirmative action) statistics were eye-opening for all the students,” Johannsen said. “It gave them a much better feel for real community issues. The conversations were unbelievably insightful and respectful.”

Rotary leaders are willing to assist high schools students and faculty with developing an “Ethics in Action” project at their schools, said Stacy Nemeth, Chair, 2015 Rotary Ethics Symposium.

Monona Grove High School Principal Paul Brost led a discussion with judicious students from his 925-student school. Students were enthusiastic about working with trained facilitators – Rotaract students and Rotary leaders – to deliver the project to Monona Grove.

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“People need help learning about ethical decisions, but we need someone to help facilitate our conversations,” noted a Monona Grove student who voted in favor of assistance from Rotaract students. “We’re too used to just listening and taking notes. We need a role model to help us get going.”

Throughout the discussion, Brost encouraged students to take a leadership role.

“I’m willing to preload the idea at a staff meeting,” he offered. “If it’s student-led, it’s up to you to take the lead and find a coach or a teacher willing to make it work. It needs to be bite-sized and meaningful.

“Part of our goal in school is to get kids to different leadership opportunities,” added Brost who has attended the conference 13 years. “Students always find this very worthwhile. It has high value for us.”

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Rotary member, Donna Beestman, is a veteran participant at the Ethics Symposium. She praises students and school leaders for their dedication and applauds the annual work of the more than 50 Rotaract and Rotary volunteers.

“It’s like students go through a transformation in the course of four hours,” she said.

2014 Rotary Ethics Symposium – Ethical Decision-Making in Action!

–submitted by Kathryne McGowan; photo credit to John Bonsett-Veal, Pete Christianson and Valerie Johnson

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From left: Dora Zuniga, John Bonsett-Veal, Karen Christianson & Rob Stroud

We did it again!  The Rotary Framework for Ethical Decision-Making has been shared and used by over 200 high school students from 19 schools in Dane County.  The 14th annual Rotary Ethics Symposium occurred on Friday, February 14, 2014.  After a year of planning, numerous committee meetings and intensive work on the curriculum and facilitation process, over 60 Rotarians and Rotaract volunteers led discussions on ethical dilemmas, hearing from the students about what they would do if they were part of the scenario and why.

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As the students gathered, there was the typical chatter about their morning, their friends, a homework assignment and occasionally a “Do you know what this is?” or “Do you know what is going to happen today?”  These inquiries were generally met with shoulder shrugs, or an “I don’t know.” The mood of the room was anticipatory, a little nervousness and maybe some expectation that this would be boring.

DSC_0033 (2)After a brief welcome by our chair Robyn Kitson (pictured at left), the opening session began.  A lone voice recited a poem, then a second voice, a third and a multitude of voices. A simple, yet powerful poem, should the protagonist take the life of someone who has attempted to harm him and others?  This began the discussions of the day.  Our keynote performers, First Wave Hip Hop Theater, sculpted their presentation to highlight ethical situations from violence, to use of language, to our impressions of others.  The “wow” of their thought-provoking performance was just the beginning of a day of exploring new ideas.  This was not going to be a boring day.

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First Wave (pictured above) introduced the ROTARY Framework for Ethical Decision-Making:

R = Recognize an ethical issue
O = Obtain information about the situation and others’ interests and perceptions
T = Test alternative actions from various perspectives
A = Act consistently with your best judgment
R = Reflect on your decision after acting
Y = Yield to your ethical judgments

The students went to sessions where the ROTARY framework was put to the test with two very different ethical dilemmas: the implications of keeping a promise to a friend who is being bullied via social networking; and, the implications of public policy for the homeless.  The students showed us that we should be very hopeful for our future.  The students readily embraced the framework and in many cases, naturally used the framework to approach the ethical dilemma.

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At the final sessions the students worked with others from their school to identify an ethical issue within their school, and to develop a plan of how to approach the problem. The students chose big issues — bullying, diversity, inappropriate use of social media were some of the topics. We are looking forward to hearing back from the students about the outcomes of applying the framework in their school with their chosen special projects implemented post event.

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The day concluded with an interactive lunch attended by many Rotarians that allowed the student to share their impressions from the day. Gone was the nervousness, fear of boredom and anticipation of the morning, replaced with confidence and understanding.  Student after student discussed their belief that they have found a way to keep the discussion going and continue as leaders in their school.

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Photo 1: Al Ripp & Jamie Weissburg; Photo 2: Kathryne McGowan & Nelson Cummings; Photo 3: Cheryl Wittke, Paul Karch, Mike Wenzel & Barb Siehr

This signature event of the Rotary Club of Madison continues to grow and develop the future thought leaders of our community.  If you had the opportunity to participate, this year we welcome your comments and if you’ve not yet participated in this event we encourage you to sign up for the Ethics Symposium Committee for 2014-15 and join us next year.

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(The Rotary Ethics Symposium is generously underwritten by Madison Rotary Foundation.)