Melissa Samuelson: Thinking critically about ethics

Faculty Sketch

Melissa Samuelson has always seen herself as an insanely curious person.

“When I was an undergrad, I always took courses that I felt were interesting. I didn’t have a super-specific career plan,” says Melissa.

She took advantage of her curious nature and lived in Nepal for a semester. It inspired her to go abroad for grad school at the University of Melbourne. She returned to the U.S. for a PhD in comparative international politics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“I’ve always enjoyed teaching and research and working internationally. As I was finishing my PhD program, I was offered a position at Thunderbird,” Melissa says. Melissa taught international business ethics and managed some student academic programs abroad.

“What is ethics? The challenge is that there’s a lot of different definitions. When I’m teaching ethics, I’m really focusing on the behavioral side of things: compliance, following rules, looking at philosophies of what is good or what is right. How do we uphold our values in a professional business environment so that we can run businesses, live our careers, as people of integrity, and not compromise on those foundational values?”

Melissa enjoys talking to people about their core values and what’s important to them.

“I see myself as a coach; giving them information and strategies they can apply to real life,” says Melissa. She gets a thrill when students discover new ways of doing or seeing things.

Melissa’s course center on helping students build strategies for handling situations where there are ethical challenges in your professional life. Everyone’s response to the pressure of an ethical conflict is different. Much of the class revolves around developing ideas and actions one can take to maintain professional integrity.

“I love teaching students how to think critically about who we want to be and how we can be that person,” she says. “Business students need a sense of purpose, just like everyone. The more can understand and fulfill our purpose within our organizations, the more effective we are and the better the organization is able to serve society.”

Melissa is fascinated with behavioral psychology. Her research looks at how people identify their purpose, and why they do the things they do; she asks about certain behaviors and the likelihood that employees might engage in unethical behavior.

“How you think about your job can change the decisions you make while you’re working there,” she says. She has partnered with an organization in Great Britain and is currently exploring how her theories unfold in the accounting profession.

While Melissa is a fan of traveling, she has really enjoyed living in Arizona.

“It’s nice to not have to check the weather every morning like in the Midwest. It’s pretty and predictable.”

When she’s not busy teaching or researching business ethics, Melissa is hiking, biking, swimming, or running. She enjoys triathlons and competes in the Twin Cities Marathon every year.

“There are a lot of athletes in our faculty, because a lot of teaching and researching is about being stubborn and persistent. You don’t become a faculty member without a certain amount of stubbornness. Academia is an endurance event,” she says.

“It’s funny how so many things we learn can be applied other parts of our lives in ways we never thought about,” she says. 


Where is your “never fail” lunch spot on or near campus and what’s your favorite menu item?

I love the Bella Bella Benny at Snooze.

What was your first job and what did it teach you?

When I was 13, I had a job I detasseling corn. It taught me quite a bit about what it is to wake up in the morning, and take your job one row of corn at a time.

What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student about to enter the “real world”?

The main thing is never be afraid to fail forward. People kind of freeze up with this fear of failure. As long as we listen to ourselves and recognize there’s something to learn from every experience, then failure is never final. You can take failure and find a way to use it to move forward. You tried something, you pushed yourself, you stepped outside your comfort zone, and maybe you screwed it up, but don’t let it stop you from trying again.

What has surprised you most about your current position?

What has surprised me is the diversity of opportunities and people you get to interact with. I’m constantly finding out about new courses of study students are pursuing, and new collaborations across disciplines. What’s been interesting to me is how many passionate people there are who are willing and wanting to connect with others to build and create a better future, and it’s really been fun and exciting to do that. I really love the people here.

What is something in your field that you’d want to learn more about?

How does having a sense of a larger purpose drive the decisions that we make? If we understand how we’re connected to other people in and outside of an organization, we think differently about the job we do. It’s not just about completing a report or making a spreadsheet, if we think about who we’re completing it for and how we’re contributing.  So many times we get hyper focused on how we do our work that we don’t think about why we’re doing it. When it comes to ethics and ethical behavior, we need that purpose so that we can understand what we’re trying to do and what we’re trying to be. Everybody wants to have a positive impact and be a contributing member to their community.


What is the most adventurous thing you’ve ever done?

I worked with midwife training programs in Kabul, Afghanistan. It was pretty foreign and strange, but one of the friendliest places. Hospitality is a huge part of Afghan culture. You’re constantly being invited to homes, celebrations, events. It’s amazing.

If you could visit anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?

Someday, I really want to go camping in Iceland. They have so much natural beauty there: mineral baths, the ocean, green forests, hot springs, lavas tubs. There’s just so much to explore.

If you could have one super power, what would it be?

I’d like to have a super power like Mantis. She has this psychic empathy power where she can sense people’s emotions and touch them to make them calm.

What movie can you watch over and over?

The Princess Bride. It’s the best.

What fictional character would you want to be? Why?

I would be Indiana Jones. I like to go places most people don’t go and do things most people wouldn’t think of doing. That idea of discovery and adventure? Love it!


Salty or sweet? Salty
Coffee or tea? Coffee
Soda or energy drink? Soda
Cat or dog? Dog
Truck or car? Car
Board games or video games? Board games
Fiction or non-fiction? Fiction
Facebook or face-to-face? Face-to-face
Breakfast or lunch? Breakfast
Morning person or night owl? Morning person