Meet our msw students and alumni

Nadia Sullivan, class of 2018

Nadia Sullivan

Concentration: Clinical Mental Health

The University of Minnesota Master of Social Work Program offers specific concentrations of study that align with the various populations that a social worker is aiming to serve after graduation. As a former prospective student I made my final decision based on this aspect of the program. I looked into multiple schools across four states and was disappointed to find that many MSW programs only offer a general practice degree. I wanted specific training in clinical practice, and I found that in the clinical mental health concentration at the University.

In my career before the MSW program I worked for a dual agency serving domestic violence and sexual violence victims. My full-time position was that of a peer empowerment counselor. I would meet with a caseload of 13-15 individuals weekly and created a safe space for them to process their trauma and set goals for healing. I loved counseling and being part of the healing process. The only downside was not being a licensed clinician. I could only provide short term crisis counseling and eventually would have to refer the clients out to the community for long term therapy. It didn't take long for me to realize I wanted to become licensed and have the ability to employ therapeutic modalities for my future clients. However, I didn't want to lose the holistic, person-centered advocacy work I had come to love while working for non-profit organizations. Finding the clinical mental health concentration within a social work program was a perfect fit for me. It taught me how to look at clinical interventions through a social justice lens.

My foundation field placement was at the Sexual Violence Center in north Minneapolis. As an advocate I worked the 24/7 crisis line for both day and night shifts. Additionally, I facilitated a support group for adolescent, female-identified victims of sexual violence who were in recovery from chemical dependency. The internship offered many opportunities to serve victims of sexual violence as well as their family and friends. The agency offers ongoing training to support advocates in assisting victims navigate the legal system and medical system. Additionally, advocates can choose to be trained in facilitating support groups in the community and/or participate in community education in which the public is engaged in conversations surrounding the prevalence of sexual violence and appropriate responses. I enjoyed working with a grassroots team of both seasoned advocates and new advocates from the community that wanted to make a difference.

When my concentration year arrived, I completed my clinical hours with Tubman Chrysalis Center in south Minneapolis providing outpatient therapy. Chrysalis encouraged exploration and offered flexibility to join most of their therapy programs and co-facilitate groups under supervision. I joined the Co-Occurring Disorders program, Relationship Violence Intervention Program, Dialectical Behavior Therapy group, and the Parenting group. Through these programs that facilitated group therapy I was able to apply various treatment modalities and provide psychoeducation to a diverse population of adults. This is also where I started forming my therapeutic identity by beginning to see a caseload of individual clients.

Currently, I work for the City of Minneapolis Health Department in their School-Based Clinics division. At one of the local high schools in Minneapolis I provide therapy services on a full-time basis and work with a holistic team including a medical provider, health educator, and registered dietician. The University of Minnesota set the foundation of an ecological approach to improving systems and lives that I utilize today. It’s not only about an individual or family and their presenting concerns; it is about the greater community, culture, policies, and politics that impact our clients. I learned to expand my focus from only wanting to learn how to practice therapy to applying practices that improve outcomes in all areas of life.

My advice to prospective students and new students:
Recognize that you are crafting your own experience. It is a time to seek out the experiences and knowledge you want that will contribute to your identity as a social worker. Feel empowered to go beyond the internship placements and classroom learning to seek out faculty who are doing research in your future field, look into committees both at the university and within the community, and take advantage of the volunteer opportunities held at agencies within the Twin Cities or at conferences and other events. There is plenty to do!

Kristen Ashworth, class of 2018


Concentration: Families and Children

The University of Minnesota is one of three schools in the Twin Cities that offers an accredited MSW program. I chose the University of Minnesota based on their research reputation and their focus on affecting both micro and macro change in the field of social work.

I struggled with choosing a concentration between Families and Children and Clinical Mental Health; however, in the end, I was able to take core classes in both.

I had field placements in an elementary school and in a children's mental health clinic. The elementary school provided me with a broad and practical experience. It gave me exposure to families, county systems, children's mental health, and a surface level introduction to various intervention strategies. My placement at the children's mental health clinic gave me a much more focused education in two particular intervention models - insurance, billing, coding, diagnosis, and professional documentation processes.

My advice to prospective students and new students:

  • The UMN is big enough to make this experience your own. If you are passionate about a particular area of social work, find advocacy groups, volunteer opportunities, clubs, professors, etc… that will allow you to learn and develop your passion.
  • Don't struggle alone! Most professors are happy to meet outside of class to encourage and advise you. If you'd prefer to be more anonymous, there is free walk-in-counseling on campus. Grad school is hard! Reach out for support.
  • Your cohort is a wealth of knowledge!! Get to know them and hear about their experiences. Connect with them on social media, and outside of school. You may learn as much from them as you will from classes.

Jenna Dorschner, current student


Concentration: Clinical Mental Health
Home: St. Paul, Minnesota

I chose to go to the University of Minnesota School of Social Work program because I enjoyed my time at the U during undergrad, and because the program has a good reputation. I love the St. Paul campus, and wanted to continue studying and working here.

My concentration is Clinical Mental Health. Mental Health has always been a passion of mine, and I hope to practice individual therapy after graduate school. I came into grad school thinking I'd like to work with adolescents, however I am looking forward to working with an older population during my internship next year.

Last year I interned at Murray Middle School as a Special Education Social Worker. I joined a great Special Education team, and learned more about a social worker's role in education. It was inspiring to see my supervisor advocate for both students and parents.

Next year, I am excited to be interning at the Boynton Mental Health Clinic. I am ready to use the clinical skills I learned during my first year.

My advice:

  • Plan ahead! Big assignments come up fast, and it helps to put all of your assignments on a calendar at the beginning of the semester so you don't forget about anything.
  • Take advantage of your role as an intern. Make sure you're asking for help, asking for more responsibility, and asking a lot of questions.

Tara Tappe, class of 2018

Tara Tappe

Concentration: Clinical Mental Health
Home: Waseca, Minnesota

I chose to go to the University of Minnesota School of Social Work program because I enjoyed my time at the U during undergrad, and because the program has a good reputation. I love the St. Paul campus, and wanted to continue studying and working here.

My concentration is Clinical Mental Health. Mental Health has always been a passion of mine, and I hope to practice individual therapy after graduate school. I came into grad school thinking I'd like to work with adolescents, however I am looking forward to working with an older population during my internship next year.

My first placement was a community practice placement at the Wilder Foundation with their Community Initiatives. The second placement I did was at Hennepin Healthcare (HCMC) in their adult psych outpatient day treatment.

I am also involved in preschool mental health day treatment, as well as individual and family therapy for children and their families.

My advice: Try out something you know little or nothing about. It is not a waste of your time and offers a well-rounded resume and experience to your social work practice.

Chantelle Vaughn, current student

Chantelle Vaughn

Concentration: Clinical Mental Health
Home: Minnesota

I went to the University of Minnesota for my undergraduate degree (several years ago) and have always heard good things about the MSW program, especially in the non-profit world. I also had a support system at the UMN and that was important to me.

I started out in Families and Children. This is the population I have always worked with and knew I would continue doing so. However, after my first semester and considering I had been out of school for several years, I decided it made more sense to take full advantage of my education. I switched to the Clinical Mental Health Concentration with the understanding that it would yield more professional opportunities and I could still work with families and children.

My first field placement was with Washburn Center for Children (WCC) in the Case Management program. WCC is well known in children's mental health and was an amazing place to learn. In the case management program I was able to learn more about resources through the county and community. I feel case management is one of the best programs to begin your social work experience as it gives you the foundation for what families struggle with and informs you of the resources available that will assist you in the future.

My advice: Get acquainted with other students in order to build an additional support system. I came in feeling like I would be one of the older students that wouldn't have anything in common with other students. However, I found everyone very welcoming and realized no matter the age difference we were all having similar experiences and it was nice to be able to process with them. Also, pace yourself with the work and get as organized as you can. It's a heavy load especially if you still have to work and/or have families to take care of. Take a break when you need one and SLEEP when you are tired!

Alicia Powers, current student

Alicia Powers

Concentration: Clinical Mental Health
Home: Las Vegas, Nevada

I moved to the Twin Cities from sunny San Diego, California where I completed my undergrad degree at the University of California-San Diego. When consulting with my mentors, I was told "get out of California for grad school." I deeply value public universities, and received incredible support from the MSW staff to meet my needs before I was even an applicant. With the program's affordability, active political community in the Twin Cities, and being one of the top 3 LGBT friendly cities in the country, this made sense. The social justice activism here was incredible, and I couldn't wait to start the program.

I chose Clinical Mental Health as my concentration because I view mental health at the core of so many inter-sectional social justice issues. Many marginalized communities face so many barriers before they get into the door to do clinical work, and once in treatment face further discrimination. As a LGBT woman of mixed heritage and other marginalized identities, I hope to begin to change representation of clinical providers. Particularly, I hope to change the understanding of healing at the paradigm level for marginalized communities.

Last year, I interned at Crisis Connection-Canvas Health with most of my time spent de-escalating callers experiencing mental crisis or active suicidal thoughts. This internship was humbling to remember how present mental health stigma is in our society at large, challenging to build rapport in a matter of minutes, and rewarding when an intervention with an actively suicidal caller led to de-escalation. Next year I will be interning at the Native American Community Clinic for medical social work as part of the Integrative Behavioral Health Fellowship.

My advice: "Supervision, Consultation, Support" One of our instructors, Christina Haddad Gonzalez, had the class repeat this phrase at least 3-4 times every week when we had class with her. It has been the one piece of advice that is a simple phrase, but easy to forget during difficult moments of the program and year. It applies to almost all areas of life. When starting the application process for grad school, engage the opinions of supervisors with experience, consult with people in a variety of roles, and ask for support from your community. Good luck, and you got this!

Erica Jossund, class of 2018


Concentration: Health, Disability and Aging
Home: Moorhead, Minnesota

I was drawn to the University of Minnesota's School of Social Work because of the Health, Disability, and Aging Concentration. I chose this concentration because I have a passion for working with older adults. I am interested in end-of-life care and knew this concentration would be a good fit.

My field placement was at Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul. I learned a great deal about complex life-limiting illnesses, palliative care, and working within a hospital system. I had a great supervisor who let me explore my interests, ask a lot of questions, and pushed me outside of my comfort zone. The social workers are great and they are committed to the learning process.

I started working at St. Croix Hospice in August 2018.

My advice: I was an advanced standing student, which means you go through the program quickly. I would recommend having an idea of what concentration you would want to pursue before starting school. When you start school, take as many opportunities as you can to get involved (ie: study abroad if you can, interprofessional courses, Clarion Case Competition, Philips Neighborhood Clinic). I didn't do them all, but the ones I did enhanced my learning. Grad school can be stressful, but remember to take time for yourself and have some fun!

Jaleesa Lenior, current student


Concentration: Health, Disability and Aging
Home: Minneapolis, Minnesota

I chose the University of Minnesota School of Social Work program because I loved the concentration options. Another reason I chose this school is because it is a research-based institution, and research is such an important aspect of any profession. I also attended the University of Minnesota as an undergrad and had a great experience!

From the time I attended the info session, I was intrigued with each of the concentrations. Because of this, it took some time for me to settle on one. The concentration I eventually settled on was Health, Disability, and Aging (HDA). I've also had a love for the medical field since I was a child, and thought HDA would be the perfect option for me to work as a Social Worker while also getting exposure to the medical field. I find helping patients and their families through tough medical diagnoses to be very rewarding.

My foundation-year field placement was at Interfaith Outreach and Community Partners in Plymouth, Minnesota. This is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to engage their community to respond to the emergency needs of its members and create opportunities for all to thrive. They have various services to assist with carrying out their mission, including a top of the line food shelf, employment services, and financial services to name a few. The employees are so great and really care about each other and their clients. I really enjoyed my placement here and think it is great foundation for students!

My concentration field placement will be at Bethesda Hospital, a long-term acute care hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota. This will be my first time engaging in medical social work, and since I have chosen this as my career, I am very excited to get my foot in the door and some experience under my belt. I am also the recipient of the 2018-19 Eloise and Elliot Kaplan Fellowship, and am honored and excited to work with patients (and families of patients) who have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries.

My advice to prospective students would be to build community with your classmates! I found the school year to be a lot less stressful when I had people in the program to talk to (about school and/or personal issues), have writing or study sessions with, or to just hang out with to take our minds off of school and assignments for a while. This was not only helpful, but key to the completion of my first year of grad school. My second piece of advice would be to communicate and engage with your instructors as much as possible. This sets the foundation to have a good relationship with them, and could possibly open up opportunities for you in the future.

Veronica Ekaette Okokon Nelson, current student

Veronica Ekaette Okokon Nelson

Concentration: Clinical Mental Health
Home: Minneapolis, Minnesota

I’ve planned to get my MSW for a long time and right now is the best time for me and my family to begin that journey. The MSW program at UMN has the reputation of being the best social work program of the “big three” in our area. I went to the U here in the twin cities for undergrad studies and I was so happy to be given the opportunity to re-engage in the same culture of learning that I grew to appreciate while working towards my BA. In addition, the tuition to this program was more affordable for me than the other MSW programs (St. Thomas/St Kate’s & Augsburg) that I was admitted to.

I am passionate about and committed to children and families, especially children’s mental health. I want to become a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker so that I can therapeutically engage with children and adolescents whose mental health has made it difficult for them to be a kid. I chose the Clinical Mental Health Concentration.

Foundation year: Mapletree Group Home for Boys - case manager intern. At Mapletree I co-facilitated weekly group therapy sessions and group ILS sessions for male juvenile sex offenders in a community based residential setting. I also held weekly individual sessions with clients to work towards their independence and successful re-integration into the community. I will always remember my time at Mapletree warmly. Concentration year: City of Minneapolis School Based Clinics - South High School, mental health therapist intern. At SBC South I am learning about and practicing how to engage in the intake process, diagnostic assessment and engagement in individual psychotherapy sessions with high school students struggling with anxiety, depression, loss, low self esteem, and family and peer relationship problems. I LOVE it so far!

My concentration field placement will be at Bethesda Hospital, a long-term acute care hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota. This will be my first time engaging in medical social work, and since I have chosen this as my career, I am very excited to get my foot in the door and some experience under my belt. I am also the recipient of the 2018-19 Eloise and Elliot Kaplan Fellowship, and am honored and excited to work with patients (and families of patients) who have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries.

My advice: Prioritize figuring out what you need to read to pass the class and take time later to catch up on readings you did not prioritize. Engage in class. Ask questions and participate in discussions! Don’t accept everything your instructors say as absolute truth. Be actively curious about why they teach what they are teaching the way they are teaching it. The true learning happens in class... so don’t make a habit of skipping! Build relationships with your instructors and contact them if you are confused about assignments, need individual time to understand concepts, or need extra time to complete your work. If you appreciate what they’re doing - let them know. If you don’t- let them know and why. Notice your peers/fellow classmates. You are going to need their support and they are going to need yours. Take care of yourself and have fun... both outside and inside class!

Rebecca Anderson Fly, alumnus

Veronica Ekaette Okokon Nelson

Families and Children
Home: Coon Rapids, Minnesota

I chose the University of Minnesota because I received my bachelor's degree (Afro-American Studies) from the University of Minnesota. My sisters and brother-in-law graduated from the U of M as well. I also lived in Minneapolis at the time. I have always had the greatest respect for the U of M. It was a logical choice.

I was a Child Welfare Fellow and have always wanted to help children have better lives. Intervening earlier in lives leads to better outcomes.

I did my field placements with a private foster care agency and with Dakota County child protection. The foster care agency was awesome - I enjoyed working intensely with the smaller caseload and being able to meet frequently with foster parents and children.

I am the district social worker for Mahtomedi School District. Because the district has never had a social worker before, a large part of my position is to create processes and protocols for the position. It is really fun to create something from nothing to meet the needs of a wide range of students.

My advice: Follow your heart - My dream was to be a school social worker which I was very fortunate to achieve 6 months after getting my MSW. However, I recently spent 1 1/2 years as a hospice social worker and that was the most rewarding position I have ever had. Every single day when I went home, I knew I had been a blessing to someone and that I had been equally blessed. To keep company with someone on their last journey is an honor and privilege. Now I am back in the educational field and loving the challenge of being able to create the position to meet the needs of the district.

Amanda Loge, class of 2005

Veronica Ekaette Okokon Nelson

Families and Children

I chose the University of Minnesota because of the location and I was also able to get a position as a Graduate Assistant with the former College of Human Ecology that made my grad school extremely affordable.

My experience in the program was positive. Going part-time over a longer length of time made a little more difficult to build relationships as I didn't stay with the same cohort, but it was worth the cost savings to work and go to school. I enjoyed my field placement, primarily working with refugees, at West Seventh Community Center. My second field placement was international, working with children and families in Arequipa, Peru. This was life-changing. I had great relationships with a handful of professors.

Since graduating, I’ve worked as a Salvation Army Leader in North Minneapolis and currently as a School Social Worker in Roseville Public Schools.

My advice: Social work is a broad field that opens up a variety of opportunities for you. Get to know your classmates (future SW colleagues), find internships that you are excited about and be willing to think outside the box to make things happen. I found the staff willing to work with me as I pursued and arranged my international field placement.

Anna Lifson, class of 2017

Anna Lifson

Clinical Mental Health

I had recently relocated to the Twin Cities, and knew that I wanted to stay here to pursue my MSW, so I was only looking at local programs. The University of Minnesota's MSW program quickly emerged as my top choice-- actually, my only choice!-- due to the strong reputation of the program, the connections available through a Research I institution, and the relative affordability of the program.

I completed my foundation field placement in the Family Services Program at CornerHouse, providing support to parents and caregivers of children who had experienced abuse and neglect. My first year I was on the planning committee for Social Work Day at the Capitol. In my first year, I also worked as a research assistant with Dr. Lynette Renner on a project to create a coordinated health care system response for survivors of intimate partner violence. During the summer between my first and second years, I interned at EVOLVE Adoption and Family Services, supporting foster families, adoptive families, and families involved with the child protection system. That internship was sponsored by the Community Health Initiative of the University of Minnesota's Office for Business and Community Economic Development. I completed my clinical field placement at RECLAIM, providing individual and family therapy to queer and trans young people ages 13-25. My second year, I also participated in the Integrated Behavioral Health (IBH) fellowship program. Throughout my MSW experience, I continued to work very part-time as a non-denominational wedding officiant. I also had family responsibilities while I was an MSW student, and I worked hard to manage everything that was on my plate while also maintaining my own wellness.

I was hired by RECLAIM, where I completed my clinical field placement, and began working as a paid employee as soon as I graduated! I was initially hired as a full-time therapist; more recently, I have been promoted to the position of Program Manager on a federal grant that tasks us to provide therapy and create and support peer education programs on topics of relationship violence among queer and trans youth. I get to keep honing my therapeutic skills, and I also get to design curriculum and work with staff and students in the St. Paul Public Schools. I feel very fortunate to be doing work that is both meaningful and fun!

My advice: Remember that building connections in your field of interest, and learning as much as possible from your field placements, are much more important for your career than a 4.0 in graduate school. If possible, try to gain experience in a variety of different social work settings before enrolling in an MSW program-- you'll get much more out of your coursework, and have more to contribute to your field placements, if you have at least a few years of experience in human services and/or social justice work before starting your MSW.

Ed Morales, class of 2013 (dual degree with Master of Public Policy)

Veronica Ekaette Okokon Nelson

Clinical Mental Health

I chose the University of Minnesota because of its location, location, location. Living in the midwest, there aren't too many programs in large cities - Duluth, Madison, Chicago. Minneapolis. UMN was the school closest to where I was living at the time, and seemed to offer a strong focus on field experience and community-based work.

The first year, I did my placement in a small charter school in North Minneapolis. The school closed halfway through the year, and I was bumped to another school, this time on the Southside. It was a turbulent year, but gave me extremely valuable experience and insight into the machinations of charter school funding and their roles in underserved communities. I saw the ripples of the closure as students transferred all over the city, including to my new school, where they had to learn the new rules and culture. The experience inspired me to pursue my Master of Public Policy as a dual degree student through the Humphrey.

The second year I completed my placement with the Northside Achievement Zone, working on access to mental health on the Northside. I also joined the Executive Pathways Internship Program at the Department of Human Services and led a statewide survey of individuals staying in shelter. Through it all, I worked for the agency I interned for the first year, as a student support staff in a variety of charters. It paid the bills, gave me exceptional experience, and helped shaped my practice in a major way.

For me, social work has been about far more than a job to pay the bills. I fell in love with North Minneapolis, eventually bought a home there, and a few years ago became a foster parent to two amazing sisters I had met through the course of my work in schools. Professionally, I've been able to be involved in some very cool community-based projects. From statewide research into homelessness, to talking with kids about their experiences staying in shelter, to establishing policy and practice at major community organizations, to being a member of the founding-year staff at a charter high school, I've been empowered to do a lot.

A social work friend once told me that she felt the perfect job didn't really exist for dual degree students, and that we would have to eventually create our own jobs. In 2017, I did just that, founding Socorro Consulting, my own organization committed to transforming discipline systems and providing strong allyship to families in Minneapolis. An MSW gives you a lot of power to do a lot of things!

My advice: The best single piece of advice I received when I joined the program was from MJ Gilbert. She told me to take a placement in an area of practice I didn't think I would be interested in. At the time, I never even thought about kids, so I took a flyer on a school internship. Seven years later, my career and my life have been shaped by close to a decade working in schools with young people. Amazing advice.

There is a LOT of writing in the MSW program. If writing comes easy for you, you're in luck! If you don't like writing, it's time to figure out how to make it work for you! Keeping a detailed, running calendar of events, deadlines and other important dates was vital. There is a lot of work - you may have your field placement, you may be working, you may have family, and THEN you've got your classes, too. You'll want a system to help you stay on top of everything! The final bit of advice I would share is to get started on projects as early as possible. I didn't figure this out until my second semester, but I was eventually able to get papers done one or two, and sometimes even three weeks ahead of schedule, and it was amazing. Being able to coast through the final weeks of the semester while peers struggled to stay above water with stacked deadlines was a major blessing.