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After overcoming obstacles, Blugold social work graduate aims to help others do the same

| Denise Olson

Photo caption: Finn Hinnefeld wants other students to know that taking a break from academics for personal or other reasons is not failure — it’s self-care that can make all the difference in getting back on track to their best future.

Most graduates at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire plan to use their degrees to make the world a better place somehow, and some have had a specific experience that has inspired a career path to make change.  

For social work major Finn Hinnefeld, that experience was witnessing widespread homelessness, and the journey of discovery began with a trip to Chicago as a second-year student.  

“I was a music education major at the time and was beginning to sort of doubt that was the right path for me,” the Shawano native says. “Being in Chicago and seeing for the first time what it looks like when so many people in one place are experiencing homelessness — it just really broke my heart, and stayed with me.”  

Hinnefeld says that reflecting on that trip for a couple of weeks prompted a process of potentially changing majors. After mulling over a well-honed “pros and cons list,” changing to a social work major won the inner argument.  

“I had an intro level class, Social Work 100, and the basics of social justice work became something I knew I could really get behind,” Hinnefeld says. “I knew it was the right choice.”  

Sights set on social work, but life and COVID had other plans 

After officially changing majors in spring 2019, Hinnefeld says they were enrolled in a 200-level social work course that focused on global issues and human rights and injustice, topics that sparked deep interest in how systemic change can come about.  

“The class was SW 290, Human Rights and Global Injustice, and it was my first real introduction to social justice and human rights,” Hinnefeld recalls. “We discussed race and systemic racism in the prison system, for example. That’s the class that really fired me up to be someone who seeks change.”  

Hinnefeld says that just as a true “fire” was lit in them by the field of social work, the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown was issued in March 2020, and things suddenly became unclear once again.  

“That whole semester is pretty fuzzy for me to be honest,” Hinnefeld says about the online learning environment of the lockdown.  

“I ended up taking a year off after COVID, but it wasn’t just about that,” they say.  

In addition to struggling academically with online classes, Hinnefeld says that period also was fraught for them with processing self-realizations about their gender identity.   

“I came back to school in fall 2020, but issues around my queer identity were hard, my overall mental health was not great,” Hinnefeld says. “Although I had a ton of amazing support from my social work cohort and faculty, as well as Student Health Service and Counseling Services, I hit midterms and had a hard conversation with my mom about school.”  

Hinnefeld says that with their mother’s support, the decision to withdraw from classes and take some time away from school was best.  

“It was a scary decision, and I was disappointed in myself because none of my older siblings ever needed to take a break from school,” they say.  

“My mom just said, ‘It seems that this is what you need to do; it will all be fine,’ which really helped me.”  

Spending the rest of the 2020-21 academic year at home, working a new job and focusing on their mental health while discovering and accepting their gender identity turned out to be a tremendous growth opportunity for Hinnefeld.  

“I always knew I would be going back to school; that was never a question,” Hinnefeld says. “But I took that year to really reflect, think about who I am and what I want. I did counseling — it was a healing year for sure.”    

Back on campus and ready to roll 

Hinnefeld says that returning to school felt great, and what little trepidation there was about jumping back into their social work courses was quickly resolved by supportive faculty and advising staff.  

“In that first week of fall 2021, the faculty asked in surveys if we had specific questions or concerns about the classes, and I was honest,” Hinnefeld says. “I admitted that coming back to a full load of courses after a year off was intimidating. I had to retake some classes from the spring semester, classes in my major that had ended up terribly for me when COVID hit. I was assured by all my faculty that they would support me in any way they could, and they did.”  

Hinnefeld says they earned all A’s that semester and have maintained all A’s and B’s ever since.   

“One trait about Finn that really stands out to me is their perseverance,” says Dr. Leah Olson-McBride, professor and chair of the social work department. “Finn exhibited the ability to persevere through the various challenges presented by the COVID pandemic. Instead of giving up or switching majors once again, they retook the classes and did well the second time around.  Since then, Finn has been an absolute rock star of a student. They are hilarious, engaged in the classroom and supportive for others within our program.” 

Taking on area homelessness through a pivotal internship    

With academics going well for the last three semesters, Hinnefeld decided to pursue an internship in social work to complete their pre-service experience in the field. They asked Dr. Joshua Potter-Efron, clinical assistant professor and field director in the social work department, for a list of available internships.  

One on the list was with the organization Western Dairyland, a community action nonprofit serving disadvantaged individuals in Buffalo, Eau Claire, Jackson and Trempealeau counties.   

“At this organization I had opportunities to dive into macro elements in social work, meaning systemic problems and policy change, including homelessness,” Hinnefeld says. “I thought that since it was homelessness that got me interested in social work to begin with, it made sense for this internship to bring me full circle by working to make change in that area.”  

As part of the larger picture of housing in the region, Hinnefeld works directly with people experiencing homelessness in Eau Claire, a population that hovers around the 200 mark, according to recent data.  

“The number I’ve heard most recently is 200, and that includes only individuals, not families with children,” Hinnefeld says.  

“One of the things I noticed right away in my internship was that there really isn’t a forum for people experiencing homelessness to be heard, for their voices to make it to meaningful discussions on the topic. One of my projects has been to create a homelessness roundtable, monthly discussions at the downtown Community Haven House, formerly known as the Warming Center,” Hinnefeld says. 

Hinnefeld says these roundtables offer people experiencing homelessness a place to voice specific concerns, ask questions about services and to simply “be seen and heard.”  

Potter-Efron says he is not surprised to see this level of engagement and initiative from Hinnefeld’s internship work; he says Hinnefeld always has shown that type of empathy and understanding in coursework as well.  

“Finn works hard to take on the perspectives of others and has shown an ability to advocate for themselves as well,” Potter-Efron says. “Finn’s efforts to create a roundtable for those in the unhoused community will encourage members of that community to find ways to voice their needs and be part of identifying potential solutions. It is a perfect example of how Finn has developed a strong voice in compassion to create empowerment and advocacy for others.”  

Hinnefeld sits on different committees at Western Dairyland, working on initiatives like establishing a designated place for portable toilets in the downtown district along with establishing a storage facility for those without a home to store their belongings.  

“I also recently applied for and received a grant from Kwik Trip that will allow us to give out gift cards for gas. A lot of people live in their car, so those will be very helpful. In more general policy, decriminalizing homelessness is important; we are working toward that. Removing stigma and discrimination is another important goal,” they say.  

Hinnefeld says that part of the internship requirements for social work is that the experience helps to develop the core competencies in the field, which are:  

  • Demonstrate ethical and professional behavior.  
  • Engage diversity and difference in practice. 
  • Advance human rights and social, economic and environmental justice. 
  • Engage in practice-informed research and research-informed practice. 
  • Engage in policy practice. 
  • Engage, assess, intervene and evaluate practices with individuals, families, groups, organizations and communities. 

“For the engaging diversity requirement, I asked if I could do a presentation to Western Dairyland staff about LGBTQ+ identity,” Hinnefeld says. “They all said it was very informative and well done, that they learned a lot.”  

Hinnefeld’s immediate plans after graduation are to find full-time employment.  

“There happens to be an opening at Western Dairyland, so I am applying to that,” Hinnefeld says. “I do want to get my master’s, but first I’d like to work for a couple years.  

“I’m not sure what specialty area I would choose for graduate school yet; working a while will help narrow that down. I just know that I love learning, and furthering my education is something I eventually want to do.”  

Hinnefeld acknowledges that a career in social work can be daunting, the circumstances of which can take a personal toll on case workers.  

“The work at Western Dairyland has been heavy; it can be a challenge to staying positive,” Hinnefeld says. “I’ve learned things through this internship that will help long term in this field, like taking care of myself and setting good boundaries between work and life.”