Retreats and Ethics: A closer look at how the senior capstone class works, and what the students learn in it

As many college students go through their senior year, many new things start to happen that do not typically happen in the years preceding it.

As seniors in college approach graduation, they face a variety of new experiences and changes.

Graduation becomes a more frequent topic that pervades thought and conversation, post-graduation housing plans are made, and that huge mountain of school debt begins to rear his ugly head, with his friend, interest rates following behind him.

The students of Johnson University have experienced many of these exciting and worrying things, that are typically part of senior year. One thing that is special about senior year at Johnson is the Senior Capstone course, which is an ethics class that all seniors are required to take in order to graduate.

Senior Capstone began six years ago by Johnson Professors, Ron Wheeler, and Tommy Smith. They hoped to instruct seniors in ways of Christian Ethics that may appear in the various careers that the students will pursue after graduation.

The basic goal of this class is to show students how ethics play into every professions.

One of the biggest features of this class is the Capstone Retreat, which is the turning point of the class. Students shift from traditional class lectures to the focusing on case studies, and independent student meetings based on their respective projects.

On a surface level, Senior Capstone does not seem very special, beyond a unique class structure. Many underclassmen at Johnson might not understand the inner workings, or the point of the course until they take it for themselves.

“I know that several of the seniors, when they finish the project, they have changed the way that they think about offering advice to people,” professor Ron Wheeler said.

“Many of them who have just thought of something right off the top of their head now want to…step back, think about looking at the issues, and the complicated settings, and then do some research, then come back to whoever has asked the question.”

Wheeler said that everyone who has taken the class before has generally become thoughtful and careful in regards to moral issues, and spiritual advice.

“You can tell from the reflections essays, an essay that the students write on the entire research presentation… a good 50 percent [of the students] will write essays, ” he said. “And they will say this has changed my thinking about the decision making process, and here are the things that I’m going to do in terms of looking at making decisions.”

It should be noted that a part of each student’s group project, is a 20 minute presentation of their research, a conclusion about how to deal with the case study they have chosen, and a poster showing brief highlights of their research

The posters are displayed in the top of the Gally Commons  towards the end of each semester.

Wheeler explained that,  just like the quality of each student’s reflection essays, the presentations and posters are usually of very good quality.

“In general they turn out well,” he said. “ Some of them turn out very well. We would be very pleased to take the top 1 or 2 of these presentations, and put them against any professional presentation.”

Wheeler said that approximately 60 percent of last semester’s Capstone students received A’s, 30 percent B’s, 10 percent below B, and that no failing grades were given as far as he could remember.

In turn, students often meet and exceed those standards.

Wheeler said he is always impressed at the good character and ethical attitude of the students who have taken the class.

“They are more willing to engage and they really see the value of what we do,” he said. “I think we see a lot of maturation take place.”

“I think we see incremental jumps from individuals, to groups in how they engage their work with each other, and how they think about applying all the education that they’ve had,” Wheeler said.

Many students can attest to this idea of using their educational experience, in new ways. Rebekah Gordon, senior at Johnson, explained how her group picked their case study, which deals with the issue of physician assisted suicide.

She said that her group picked this case study because nobody in her group had a very solid opinion on the topic, and thus could approach it from an unbiased angle.

Factors her group discussed included: man bearing the image of God, what point life is no longer worth living, financial aspect, and the moral aspect.

“We are trying to look at the Christian support of the death and dignity laws, so that in the alleviation of suffering we are doing Christ’s work,” she said.

Gordon said the debate over death with dignity will definitely impact the terminally ill, but also their friends and their family.

She said it could impact the church, hospitals, Christian doctors and ministers.

“How to do you do a funeral for someone who has chosen to end their life?” she questioned.

After the retreat, the students return to Johnson with a very different view of their case study.

Gordon said, “I knew from previous student that we would be given a hypothetical situation that we had to work through as a group, but I was looking forward to the latter half of the class.”

She said that after the retreat she did not think her opinion had changed much, but she did say she realized that Capstone is based off the students willingness to put in effort.

She also said that humility is necessary when approaching these issues.

“We have to have opinions on things, and we need to hold firmly to what we believe the truth is, but we have to hold that truth loosely, recognizing that something may come up that teaches us that wasn’t correct,” Gordon said.

This idea of holding to what you believe is true, but remembering that you could be wrong about certain things, seems to be one of the key ideas behind Senior Capstone.

But it also teaches the students to try to think about what solutions can Christians come up with that will be best for the greatest number of people, and that will honor God.

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