Zachary Brubaker and Maggie Cardin both had the same choice early in their life: They could either stay quiet or make their voice heard. Each chose the latter.
Brubaker and Cardin will both graduate in May, but that’s not all they have in common. Both faced life-altering events before coming to University Park, and the way in which they responded to their situations led to them both to be honored with the Rock Ethics Institute’s Stand Up Award in April. As part of the honor, they will be featured on posters that will adorn CATA buses and be distributed throughout the University Park campus later this year.
The Penn State Rock Ethics Institute created the Stand Up Award in 2008 to honor Penn State undergraduate students who have the courage and fortitude to take an ethical stand for a person, cause, or belief, and thereby demonstrate ethical leadership.
"It takes courage and conviction to stand up for the beliefs that we hold dear, especially in the face of social pressures and difficult challenges,” said Nancy Tuana, the Nancy Tuana Director of the Institute and DuPont/Class of 1949 Professor of Philosophy. “We believe that it is important to acknowledge the efforts of those who have answered this call for ethical leadership and tell their stories so that they serve as moral exemplars who inspire us all.”
When he was eight, Brubaker was diagnosed with a condition that doctors said would cause him to completely lose his eyesight within a decade. For Cardin, she and her family lost her brother when he committed suicide.
They encountered circumstances that would be tragic for anybody. But Brubaker and Cardin didn’t allow that to be the entire story.
"I think that both of us probably realized at a young age that there are things in this world that affect more than just us,” Cardin said. “We used our circumstances as a springboard to be able to reach others. We both have a story. We know that our story isn't the only story, but we step forward to share it and hope that it will make a difference."
Each has done just that.
Brubaker, a physics major, has already exceeded the expectations of his doctors. He continues to retain a percentage of his eyesight, using alternative technologies and visual techniques to navigate campus. He founded the Penn State Alliance of the Blind and Sighted and has also
worked toward eliminating an exception in the current minimum wage law that allows employers to pay workers with disabilities less than minimum wage. His tireless work has led U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson to sponsor a bill to eliminate sub-minimum wages for workers with disabilities. Currently, he is working to gain more sponsors for the bill.
"I was truly honored to be nominated and awarded with the Stand Up Award for ethical leadership,” he said. “I've always told members of my organization and people that I've mentored that there's no award for doing the right thing. However, the Rock Ethics Institute recognized me and my organization's efforts, and not only just recognized us, but helped us to reach more people, to promote and advertise for our cause, so that was really exciting to see.”
How the legislation was introduced was just as important that it got created at all, Brubaker said. Instead of creating confusion or misunderstanding between sighted and blind people, it created an opportunity for him and others to reach out to people who otherwise might never have met someone who is blind or otherwise disabled.
“I want people to realize that American workers with disabilities are valued American workers, that they are people who wake up every morning and contribute to this country just as anyone else would,” Brubaker said. “I really hope that my efforts with this legislation go on to create a better understanding and a greater respect for all people."
Cardin, meanwhile, said mental health awareness and training for teachers is crucial, especially since about 20 to 25 percent of students may be suffering from a mental illness, She helped lead a pilot program at Penn State in the fall, calling it an exciting milestone but adding that things aren’t happening fast enough, that this type of training needs to be implemented not just in Pennsylvania, but across the country.
She said her goal in coming to Penn State was to create a future training program, saying that she wants teachers to receive information on mental health illness so that they can be first responders.
Cardin, a childhood and early adolescent education major who teaches sixth- and seventh-graders at Mount Nittany School as part of an internship, said teachers may spend more time around certain students than their parents do, so it’s critical for teachers to understand and pick up on students’ tendencies.
"Receiving the Stand Up award was such an honor,” Cardin said. “Mental health awareness and mental health advocacy are so needed in our society, so it was just another reminder and affirmation that we're doing good things. But if anything, it makes me want to work harder."
Stand Up honorees are recognized every year at a ceremony in the spring and presented with a $1,000 award, though neither Brubaker nor Cardin mentioned the monetary component as a reason for why both called receiving the award “an honor.”
"Ethics is the keystone to any leader,” Brubaker said. “I define ethics as what you do when nobody's looking. It's who you are in the dark, regardless of punishment or award and it really boils down to your character and your integrity.”
Brubaker said he took on a leadership role within his organization because of his experience and convictions. Cardin, meanwhile, said that while she doesn’t feel she has an authoritative role, she does have a story to tell and that people have been very receptive to her thus far.
"I wish that I didn't go through what I went through in my life,” Cardin said. “I wish every day that I could have my brother back, but that's not reality. The reality is that I lost my brother and he took his life. I could be quiet and not talk about it, or I could be loud and use my voice and use my story to speak to people.
“I lost someone, I lost someone who was very valuable to my life, so I can explain this personal story because everyone has lost in some capacity, and I think that everyone is effected by mental illness somewhere along the lines."
A few times during the joint interview, Brubaker and Cardin said that they could relate to one another and their experiences, with some playful banter and give-and-take transpiring.
Cardin even participated in a “cane walk” at the HUB, an event that Brubaker hosts to raise awareness for his legislation and to show sighted people that blindness isn’t something to fear.
"I find that in our culture, we fear blindness because it's something that can happen to anybody at any time for any number of reasons,” Brubaker said. “So my goal when I founded the Penn State Alliance of the Blind and Sighted was to create a better understanding between blind and sighted individuals and show that we can both work toward common goals."
Brubaker could also relate to Cardin’s program, since he worked as a Resident Assistant in East Halls and saw first-year students and the stress that accompanies their transition to college. He called Cardin’s initiative “admirable,” which started as a small community club in response to her brother’s suicide when Cardin was in sixth grade.
The group began as a mental health advocacy organization, and then evolved into “Aevidum,” a created word that’s derived from the Latin root “vid,” which means “I’ve got your back.”
It’s meant to break down walls, with Cardin saying a friend can simply look at another friend and say, “Aevidum” as a way of sharing support even if they’re not familiar with mental illness.
Brubaker and Cardin are both far from done with their work. The legislation that Brubaker helped to introduce still needs to be passed, and as Cardin noted earlier, mental health awareness goes far beyond Pennsylvania.
Both are passionately persistent in their pursuits. They both said they’re happy to talk with groups and individuals in the hopes of raising awareness and sharing information.
“I hope that one day I don't have to stand on stages and one day, people don't have to be ashamed to say that they have a mental illness,” Cardin said. “Because it's nothing to be ashamed of, so I hope that I no longer will have to do that, because it'll be a non-issue.
“So Aevidum doesn't plan on stopping until every teacher, student, every community member all across the country knows that it's OK to not be OK, and it's OK to be suffering, but they don't have to suffer in silence."
Click here to watch a video of Brubaker.
Click here to watch a video of Cardin.
Click here for more information on Brubaker and Cardin and links for past honorees.