Winona State University pre-social work majors are finding creativealternatives to in-person volunteer outreach, doing good in the community through their 120-hour introduction internship. WSU Professor Cathleen Faruque says that although COVID-19 has disrupted their coursework, it has not stopped the determination of the 47students in her class. “I am so proud of our pre-majors,” says Faruque. “Everyone is pitching in, coming up with creative ideas, and doing the best they can in this new normal.”


Traditionally designed to provide students with direct client contact in a human service agency, the SOCW350 interns began their semester across 20+ agencies serving vulnerable adults and children in both Winona and Rochester. But even before Minnesota State’s decision to move instruction to alternative formats, several agencies had already contacted Faruque to inform her that they were closing their doors or limiting the number of people allowed entrance.


Sophomore Karley Aguiar had been interning at the Benedictine Adult Day Care Center (BADC) prior to the COVID-19 closure. While she was saddened to not be able to visit her clients in person, she was also worried about them individually. “As time passed,” she says, “I thought of how difficult it must be for the clients of BADC to no longer have access to spend time with their loved ones.” Aguiar wanted to continue connecting with her clients, so she worked with Faruque and the daycare center director to brainstorm new ways of encouragement through written communication.


Additionally, social work faculty members had begun discussions about what alternative internship hours might look like. Faruque set up a Facebook page to gather ideas from students. The collaborative effort resulted in student work groups and several solid ideas that would inform their new projects.


One such project that emerged from all these conversations was an initiative to send out homemade greeting cards to seniors in assisted living or nursing homes in Winona and Rochester, including BADC, Callista Court, and The Waters on Mayo Wood.


Greeting card project leader Adenike Ademola, a sophomore at WSU, described the shift in her internship experience as an opportunity to gain strength. “As a person, this experience showed me that there is always a way to be a light to people in difficult times,” she says. “It gave me a selfless side which is an important characteristic of a social worker. As a student, I found a leadership style, patience, ability to communicate concisely and to reach an understanding with different classmates.”


Similarly, another group of field experience students reached out to a WSU residence hall director to begin writing cards of encouragement for international and other WSU students still needing to reside in the dorms. The purpose of the cards was to let them know that their WSU family is thinking about them, with several students also sharing their emails on the cards to become “email pals.”


Sophomore Victoria Anderson, leader of the dorm project, has been focusing on the positive, “Something as simple and easy as letting people know that others care about them and they are not alone can make a big difference in someone’s life, and anyone is able to make that difference.”


Several other projects the students are heading up include fundraising online for local food pantries and clothes closets in their communities, creating headbands with buttons for Winona Healthcare workers to provide relief from the pinch of facemask elastic around their ears, and a literacy project led by WSU student Yusra Farah. Working with a children’s daycare to create virtual story time, the group is making videos of themselves reading children’s books and posting them to YouTube for any daycare provider to utilize.


Amidst all the chaos that is currently happening, the students share that they are discovering resilience within themselves and feeling gratitude for the efforts of their professor to continue their work to the end of the semester.


“I believe every situation is not meant to break us,” Ademola says, “but to make us and to test our ability to think critically.”


“There are so many people who are having a worse experience,” adds Anderson. “I realized just because this was happening does not mean I could not help out or engage with others from afar. There is still so much to be grateful for.”


Faruque believes that although their work has shifted to remote outreach, her students are still being challenged and developed as future social workers. “The project-based learning has created a sense of community for the students,” she says, “working together and supporting each other during this challenging time and discussing/sharing creative ideas on how they can still make an impact in their communities.”