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Social work majors find new ways forward after COVID-19 ends internships

| Judy Berthiaume

Savana Stuhl was thrilled to land her dream internship this spring in the neurology, trauma and pediatrics unit at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire.

Through the internship, the senior social work major was gaining the kinds of knowledge, skills and experiences that will help her succeed in her future career as a social worker.

Savana Stuhl, a social work major who will graduate in May, had two different internships canceled this semester because of COVID-19.

Savana Stuhl, a social work major who will graduate in May, had two different internships canceled this semester because of COVID-19.

“We assessed patients for needs upon admission and we discharged them and made sure they had the resources to safely return home when ready,” Stuhl, a native of Prescott, says of the internship. “Every morning we had core care rounds, which is a meeting of different professionals to discuss the patients and that was super cool to collaborate with other professions.”

Stuhl was halfway through the spring semester — her last before her May graduation — when Mayo Clinic discontinued all internships due to COVID-19.

While disappointed, the faculty and staff in the social work department helped her quickly find another internship that also excited her, this time with the Feed My People Food Bank in Eau Claire.

However, as the COVID-19 crisis grew and all UW-Eau Claire classes moved online, Stuhl got word that once again her internship was ending.

“It was so devastating to have both of my internships cut short,” says Stuhl. “I was heartbroken when I got the email that Mayo Clinic was ending all internships. It took me a few days to fully accept that it was done. Then, I got the internship at Feed My People Food Bank and I was so excited because I knew they would be working with so many people affected by COVID-19.

“My minor is in public health, so my education is very applicable to the food bank. But as soon as I was feeling comfortable there, we were all pulled from our sites. It was such a hard semester. I was accepting of what was happening, but it was hard.”

Fortunately, she says, UW-Eau Claire — the social work faculty and staff in particularly — did everything they could to help her and other students make the best of a very bad situation.

Among the university’s actions was waiving a rule that prohibited students from being hired pre-graduation at a site where they had interned. As a result, four Blugolds, including Stuhl, were hired by the organizations where they had been interning.

So Stuhl is now back at Feed My People, but this time as a paid employee instead of as an intern.

“I really enjoy being part of an organization that helps people and families in need, especially during a time like this,” Stuhl says, adding that understanding of how a food bank operates will help her in her future career. “I love to see the volunteers come in or talk to people on the phone and connect them to food assistance in their area.

“This position has given me an opportunity to work with people in a community public health setting, essentially combining my major of social work with my minor in public health. The staff are amazing as well, working to make food available to people who need it, even going as far as setting up pop-up food pantries to make the food more accessible.”

Stuhl was one of several social work majors whose internships were disrupted by the pandemic, says Dr. Leah Olson-McBride, associate professor of social work and chair of the department of social work.

Removing students from internships was a difficult but necessary decision, Olson-McBride says.

“We initially kept them in their placements but instituted one-to-one check-ins via phone calls with each student to ensure that they felt comfortable staying in their placements,” Olson-McBride says. “Several of the agencies closed entirely, so we moved students to places that could offer them a ‘home.’

“However, when Gov. Evers issued the Safer at Home order, we chose to remove all the students from their placements.”

The Council on Social Work Education, which accredits UW-Eau Claire’s social work program, requires students to engage in more than 400 hours of internship during their undergraduate social work education. However, as a result of COVID-19, CSWE decreased the number of hours required and allowed programs to provide alternate learning activities to students.

In response, UW-Eau Claire social work faculty developed multiple alternate activities for students to engage in, including things like webinars, online training modules and documentaries.

Stuhl says that is one of many examples of ways that the social work faculty and staff went above and beyond to support their students during the stressful semester.

“The UW-Eau Claire faculty have helped me every step of the way this semester,” Stuhl says. “When I was first offered this position at the food bank, I connected with them to see how I could go about finishing the rest of my hours online. They were very helpful and supportive of me taking this position, knowing it would help me gain experience for the future.”

While she was impressed by her professors’ efforts, she was not surprised by them because social work faculty and staff always put their students first, Stuhl says.

Stuhl and several other social work majors were so appreciative of all that their faculty and staff have done for them throughout their years on campus, that they created a video thanking them.

“I was in the video because a simple thank you was the very least we could do for all they have done for us,” Stuhl says. “My message was that I was glad I was part of this program, and that the faculty embody perfectly what social work is and demonstrate how social workers should respond to crises.

“Our faculty have shown us that social workers need to be ready to change course and adapt to new situations.”

Faculty were touched by the students’ gesture, especially considering they created it during what has been an incredibly difficult few weeks for them, Olson-McBride says.

“I sort of think that we are the ones who should have been thanking them for their flexibility and resilience,” Olson-McBride says, noting that the video reflects the strong connections that faculty and staff work hard to build with their students.

One of the best things about UW-Eau Claire’s social work program is that most of the faculty have students in multiple classes, so students and faculty get to know each other well despite there being 300 social work majors, Olson-McBride says.

“All of the faculty bring skills from their 'prior lives' as social workers to their current role of professor, which means we are always thinking about the overall well-being — academically and emotionally — of students and working really hard to ensure they feel connected to the department and to their classmates,” says Olson-McBride, who graduated from UW-Eau Claire with a degree in social work in 1999.

During her years as a Blugold, Stuhl embraced the many outside-the-classroom opportunities she found on campus, including things like student organizations, international immersion programs and faculty-student collaborative research.

However, spending time with social work faculty and students has been a highlight of her time at UW-Eau Claire, Stuhl says.

“Everyone who is in this program is helpful and willing to listen to new ideas, create change and inspire the people around them,” Stuhl says. “It has been fun to get to know my cohort and just know that we have each other’s backs.”

Initially, after not being able to complete either of her internships, Stuhl was worried that she would not be ready for a position working in the social work field.

Now, she realizes that her experiences this semester, along with lessons learned from watching her professors react to the crisis, has prepared her to handle whatever comes her way.

“I honestly have learned so much, maybe even more, than if I had a traditional internship,” Stuhl says. “I have learned to adapt and really be in the moment. You never know what might happen, so being prepared to change course at any given point is critical.

“Also, I have learned not to dwell on the past. There is nothing I can do about my internships being cut short, so being continuously upset about it is not worth my energy. I am grateful for even getting the opportunity to spend the time I have there. I learned, I grew and now I am moving forward.”

Stuhl’s future plans include earning a master’s degree in social work, and then becoming a licensed clinical social worker and working in a mental health setting.

That said, among the lessons she has learned this semester is that it’s best to keep an open mind about what might come next.

“I am trying to be very open with my future,” Stuhl says. “I have always been a planner, but I learned sometimes it helps not to have a plan.”