COEThe winners of the American Counseling Association’s yearly ethics competition all agree that their reasons for participating go much deeper than the prize — they are each passionate about the subject in general and care about the substantial impact that ethics has on the counseling profession.

The ACA Graduate Student Ethics Competition, which has been open to master’s- and doctoral-level members of ACA for more than a decade, aims to educate student members on ethical issues and engage them by asking them to critically analyze a case, create an appropriate, ethical decision, and make a plan to respond to the situation.

“It gives them the opportunity to apply their knowledge in a practical and meaningful way,” says Erin Martz, director of ethics and professional standards for ACA.

Each entry is evaluated by members of the ACA Ethics Committee in a blind-review process.

First through third place winners of the competition receive gift certificates to the ACA bookstore, and their responses are submitted to VISTAS to be considered for publication.

“Next year,” Martz says, “we will be increasing the value of the first- through third-place awards to include conference registrations and higher dollar amounts for the bookstore gift cards.”

There were 63 submissions in this year’s competition, with 48 teams submitting on the master’s level and 15 on the doctoral level. The North Carolina State University (NCSU) team, consisting of Heather Warfield, Megan Tajlili, Stephen Kennedy and faculty member Stanley Baker, won for the doctoral level. Robin DuFresne, Jill Haar, Andrew Intagliata, Nicole Rybarczyk and faculty member Nick Piazza, hailing from the University of Toledo, won for the master’s level.

This year wasn’t the first time that the NCSU team entered the competition.

“Last year, our teammate Heather Warfield approached Stephen [Kennedy] and I about competing in the competition and we were pleased when we won third place,” recalls Tajlili, a second-year NCSU doctoral student. “This year, we felt prompted to enter because we wanted to come back and try some new approaches to the ethical case scenario and use a new ethical decision-making model based upon the information we gleaned by completing the process last year. Thankfully, it proved successful!”

Despite winning, Tajlili says she felt this year’s process to be more challenging in some respects.

“The case study was less cut-and-dry and had a lot of components, which all needed to be addressed,” Tajlili explains. “As a team, we spent a lot of time individually focusing on what the dilemmas were in the case and really had to think through our ethical decisions on an individual basis, as well as come together and have consensus in the group format. When we were all on the same page with how to proceed, we had to spend time finding justifications for our proposed actions, which took some research.”

Tajlili and her team members spent more of their time conceiving their plan than actually writing the paper, whereas last year they spent a majority of the time writing and less time thinking about the consequences and actions in the scenario.

“I think a major contributor to that was that Stephen [Kennedy] and I were supervising master’s students for the first time [during] the semester we were working on the competition,” Tajlili says. “So all of a sudden, the supervisory issues in the scenario seemed realistic, which elevated our thinking on the issue.”

Kennedy says the group researched ethical decision-making models upon entering the competition and selected ones that included a “significant number” of steps.

“Since the scenario that the American Counseling Association provided this year was complex, we quickly realized that we would need to consider a model that would enable us to evaluate multiple ethical dilemmas quickly,” explains Kennedy, a second-year doctoral student. “We also reviewed feedback from a presentation we led at the North Carolina Counseling Association’s conference, where participants told us that certain models were too complicated to integrate into their busy schedules as professional counselors. Our team selected the Tarvydas Integrative Decision-Making Model because it allows counselors to consider efficiently multiple dilemmas and contextual factors.”

The strategy proved successful.

Warfield is grateful that ACA holds the Graduate Student Ethics Competition because she says it gives students an opportunity to engage in the ethical decision-making process — one that they will eventually experience as professional counselors.

“The competition provides the framework for skill-building, advocacy and empowerment, and I would highly encourage students to submit an entry,” Warfield says. “This experience has given me a deeper connection to the work of the ACA Ethics Committee and has served as a bridge between my doctoral studies and my future professional plans.”

Warfeld notes that there is a robust pool of data suggesting that going through the process of grappling with ethical dilemmas leads to better overall ethical decision-making.

“Because of the rich diversity in the counseling profession, in counselor-training programs and among the clients served, it is critical to explore scenarios from a myriad of lenses,” she continues. “With the basic objective to not harm a client, ethical-decision making ought to be approached intentionally and with a degree of somber reflection. Professionals within the counseling community are in a position of power. As a result, a consistent exploration of ethical decision-making keeps at the forefront our responsibility to use our power in a healthy, non-exploitive manner.”

However, Warfield says she doesn’t think ethics is a popular subject among counseling students “because it seems the topic is often cloaked with negativity. Students are aware of ethical violations within the profession and may associate ethics with the behaviors in which they hope to never engage.”

Warfield believes ethical decision-making should be a strong component of every graduate training program.

“Small-group activities that focus on ethical dilemmas could provide a concrete opportunity for students to become familiar with the ACA Code of Ethics as well as relevant federal and state laws applicable to the dilemma,” Warfield suggests. “These types of activities may also increase the probability of future consultation and collaboration once students enter a professional setting. “

Members of the team from the University of Toledo say they are especially proud because they are the first master’s-level team from the university to compete, let alone win.

Andrew Intagliata says the team’s strategy was looking at the case study from a unique angle.

“For the competition, we decided to focus on the area that we felt was the least obvious ethical issue,” says Intagliata, a second-year master’s student in the school’s clinical mental health counseling program. “A number of aspects of the scenario were somewhat clear-cut in terms of what to do ethically, but we felt that one aspect in particular deserved a little more attention and explaining.”

Intagliata focused much of his time during the competition contemplating the role that ethics plays in the careers of counselors.

“We are expected to maintain a certain standard of excellence, and there are a number of rules by which we need to abide,” Intagliata says. “What stood out the most to me from this competition was just how much ethics can play a role in a single case and how it is important to remain focused on all aspects that may be problematic.”

Haar agrees, adding that the ACA Code of Ethics should be something constantly in the minds of students and counselors alike.

“I think it can be easy to forget that sometimes the choices we are faced with in the profession are not black and white,” Haar says. “We are all busy trying to see clients and balance so many needs and roles and requirements that, sometimes, in the pursuit of trying to help, there is the possibility of forgetting that sometimes the help you want to provide isn’t always the ethical help to provide. For me, the Code of Ethics is a knowledge base of best practices to help keep that impulse to help no matter what in check.”

Haar is now a practicing counselor at a community mental health agency and finds that ethics play a recurrent role in her professional life.

“I take steps to make sure that my decisions are informed by the code,” she says. “I keep a copy of the [Code of Ethics] on my office bookshelf, and I occasionally am asked to consult on ethical dilemmas when my peers experience them.”

It’s important to continually review and think about ethics, Haar says, because it “ensures that students and counselors are familiar with the code and are comfortable making ethical decisions.”

Intagliata thinks ethics should be on the forefront of counseling students’ minds but understands it isn’t as popular as it should be.

“As counselors, we all want to help our clients, and that is why I can see why people would get upset when there are all of these rules and restrictions by which we must abide,” Intagliata says. “While many of us would agree with a lot of the ethical standards set forth and the necessity of them, there are some cases we will encounter that will cause us some stress because of how gray the ethical situation is. Because of this, I think that ethics needs to be talked about on an ongoing basis by all counseling students, and bringing up vignettes and having open discussions in class about ethics might help to increase the popularity of an important subject.”

After participating in the competition, Intagliata says he is certain ethics will play more of a role in his counseling studies, as well as his professional life.

“I had a great experience with my teammates, including the discussion of issues and collaboration of writing the paper,” Intagliata says. “The ethics scenario we received really made me interested in all of the different layers that can exist with just one case. I have enjoyed past class discussions about ethics because they have prepared me for my internship, which then introduced me to even more ethical issues. It will be important for me to continue to monitor the ethics of my profession and keep up to date on cases that may be similar to ones that I [will] have in the future.”

   Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at