By Kim Walter
FRONT ROYAL-- The word "honor" will take on a whole new meaning this year at Randolph-Macon Academy.
In March, eight R-MA student leaders attended the Honors Leadership and Workshop at Virginia Military Institute. After the conference, students designated as "Cadet Honor Instructors" and Student Life Director Michael Williams determined that the upper-school student life curriculum theme for the 2013-2014 school year would be "Honor: Its Definition, Purpose, and Application."
The academy has an honor code, which is highly regarded due in part to the school's military component.
R-MA's student leaders, known as cadre, began meeting and gaining more knowledge on how to better convey the importance of honor to lower classmen before classes started.
David Rettinger, executive director of the Center for Honor, Leadership & Service at The University of Mary Washington, was one guest speaker who got the cadets thinking more about the meaning of honor, and how they could use it to change a community.
"Honor deals with behaving in the "right" way, of course," Rettinger said during a recent visit to R-MA. "But it also has components dealing with trust and community."
Rettinger discussed typical violations of honor, like cheating, lying and breaking social rules. He said people often revert to the behaviors by neutralizing their attitudes to cancel out moral beliefs.
"It's like, 'It's OK to share answers if I'm helping a friend,' or 'It's alright to cheat if it means I get to keep my scholarship,'" Rettinger explained. "And let's be clear: nobody's perfect. But you've got to get away from the thinking that this stuff is OK."
Williams said implementing student groups will help in discussing and exemplifying honor to younger cadets.
"I think it's important that our students get it on a personal level and kind of bypass that intimidation factor," he said. "Hopefully the student groups will help our kids open up and realize that they aren't alone, and we can move forward and make a change together."
Roop Atwal, 16, of Springfield, is a junior at R-MA. She said she's been at the academy since her freshman year remembers feeling the need to fit in as a young cadet.
Even though there were lectures and classes on honor and personal integrity, Atwal said it was easy to put it to the side when it came from an adult. On the other hand, seeing an upperclassman do "the right thing" or hearing one talk about the importance of honor made a bigger impact on her.
"I think the freshman and younger cadets will appreciate hearing about honor from our perspective, because we know what it's like to be a new student," she said. "And we aren't here to lecture them. Personally, I just want to talk and get to the bottom of why they might lie or consider cheating."
"By starting with the younger students, I'd like to think that by the time they're upperclassmen, the cool and popular thing to do will also be the "right" thing to do."
Jacob Dodson of Front Royal is also a 16-year-old junior at R-MA. As a part of the cadre, he said he feels the need to leave a lasting impact on the school.
"It's time for not only the administration, but also the students to set standards and follow through," he said. "As a cadet, you should want to feel like you're part of something bigger than yourself."
Jacob said over the past few weeks he's really realized that instilling a strong sense of honor and integrity "has to be a community effort." He said there are plenty of excuses for why someone cheats, lies or goes against their beliefs, and it's time to get away from that.
Through the use of small group settings, and reminding teachers and other staff to use their actions to show honor, Jacob said he thinks this school year could have a lasting impact on student life at R-MA.
"This is one stepping stone in preparing cadets for the long run," he said. "I'm just happy to be a part of it."
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or firstname.lastname@example.org