Pledging allegiance: College grads get some guidance

College graduation puts more into question than what job to take. Oftentimes, a grad must decide what job is best for them and best for society. To encourage their students to maintain the social responsibility after graduation, many universities are asking them to put it in writing.

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by Brian F. Hartz

March.21st.2001

For the millions of soon-to-be graduating college seniors across the country, the long, hard road out of the academic world can be disorienting, confusing, and even scary at times.

Job offers, when they actually occur, may not come from the most socially conscious businesses. To many graduates, this may not matter. They may not care where or how they get a job, just as long as they have one.

A new movement is emerging though that puts an emphasis on taking only jobs that are socially responsible. The Graduation Pledge serves as a guiding light for recent graduates during the job search process. The pledge and the organization behind it -- the Graduation Pledge Alliance (GPA) -- attempt to help graduates who desire more than just a paycheck from a job or are sick and tired of corporate irresponsibility.

The Graduation Pledge is not a legally binding contract or some sort of quasi-religious covenant. Actually, the pledge consists of just one sentence: "I pledge to explore and take into account the social and environmental consequences of any job I consider and will try to improve these aspects of any organizations for which I work."

Simply put, the pledge asks it supporters to think about the ethical implications of taking a job or entering into some profession or occupation. It doesn't say you cannot work in any industry or business you like. In fact, it wouldn't be unusual for a pledge-taking graduate to accept a position with an ethically-challenged business, in hopes of bringing about positive changes in that company's policies.

Christine Miller, a 1991 graduate of Manchester College in North Manchester, Ind. -- the GPA's national headquarters -- put the ideals of the pledge into action while working as a chemist in 1996.

"I was having a conversation around the coffeepot with my boss and we were talking about some upcoming projects, which included a cyanide testing project," Miller said. "I came to the conclusion the group for whom we were testing the water might not make the test results available to the public."

When Miller thought about the pledge she had taken upon graduating from college, a decision had to be made. "I asked myself, 'Is this really going to be for the public good?' and it really didn't feel right," she said. "So I told the company that I wouldn't work on the project and that they had plenty of other chemists and one of them could work on it."

Miller's decision turned out to be more than just a personal victory. "A couple of months went by and then my boss decided not to pursue the water-testing contract," she said. "Once that happened, it got me thinking more about the pledge, and I started noticing more [ethical] inconsistencies in my company. That influenced my decision to quit my job and look for employment elsewhere, with a company that was a good match for me and had the same ideals."

Now residing in Sturgis, Mich., Miller works as a laboratory supervisor for Ross Labs, a company whose principles resemble those found in the graduation pledge.

Besides making changes while on the job, the pledge emphasizes considering social and environmental issues during the job search. Doing so will lessen a graduate's chances of being caught in a morally compromising situation within the workplace.

Traditionally, pledge takers have not taken jobs with companies that are neglectful or in violation of such issues as human rights, environmental responsibility, sweatshop labor, and weapons manufacture just to name a few. One particularly commendable example of the pledge in action occurred when a Manchester College graduate persuaded her employer to turn down a lucrative chemical weapons manufacturing contract.

Other pledge-taking graduates have gone on to establish recycling programs at their business, eliminate racist language from a policy manual, and bolster their company's conflict resolution service.

When they're not bringing about change in the world of business, those committed to the pledge are spreading its message within the world of academia. One example is Sinead Walsh, a native of Ireland and recent Harvard graduate. She took charge of Harvard's recently established pledge effort last year and has added a whole new dimension to it.

"I really liked the idea behind the pledge, but I thought there could be more done with it," she said. Because Harvard graduates so many business- and government-oriented majors, Walsh felt it was necessary to expand the pledge's territory.

"We decided to focus on telling people what they could do to promote social and environmental responsibility no matter where they worked," she added. "We're trying to fit the pledge to our student body as much as possible. By getting so many students involved in social responsibility, we could really scare some of these companies that put so much time and energy into recruiting them."

Taking the pledge and acting on it can also bring about a great amount of personal satisfaction, as Walsh can attest: "That actually surprised me a lot," she said. "I look back now and realize that I didn't know how much of a personal effect this would have on me. I thought it was something I was just doing for the benefit of my classmates."

As she became more involved with the pledge, Walsh started noticing the simple ways in which she could make a difference. "In Ireland, there isn't nearly the emphasis on recycling that there is in the United States," she said. "But during a recent move, I took all kinds of clothes to Goodwill and recycled a bunch of paper. Later on, I would look up at the windows of my apartment and think, 'Now why did I leave all those lights on?' -- something I never would have considered in Ireland."

Since Manchester began coordinating the pledge in 1996, dozens of colleges and universities across the nation have followed its lead by instituting similar programs. Large schools like the University of Kansas and prestigious ones like Harvard University and Notre Dame University are now encouraging their graduates to take and support the pledge.

After all, a job should be about more than just a paycheck.


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