Social Work Newsletter 2020-21

News from the UMD Department of Social Work 2020-2021

Promoting Human Well-Being, Advancing Social Justice and Pursuing Culturally Responsive Practice

Welcome to our third annual e-newsletter! We’re excited to share with you the outstanding work that is taking place in the UMD Department of Social Work. Please explore the links below and see what we have been up to in the past year.

Student News

Hillary Olsen looking off to the side and smiling with Lake Superior and fall foliage in the background

Hillary Olsen, MSW student, was recently honored with the Outstanding Student, Social Work award by the Minnesota Social Service Association (MSSA). This award is given to students who showcase leadership, make contributions to the community, excel academically, and aspire to work in a health and human services profession.



Alyssa Koktavy smiles with a fuzzy winter hood over her head and a snow scraper in her hand
Alyssa Koktavy surprised folks
by scraping ice off cars
during the BSW Do Good

The BSW Student Association sponsored a Do Good Competition during Fall Semester 2020 to spread some kindness during a difficult time. Participants included BSW students, pre-BSW students and MSW students. With COVID hitting Duluth hard, the BSW officers decided to cancel all of the outdoor in-person events that were planned. While disappointed that fun activities were cancelled, especially during a year where students need the extra support, the students came up with the Do Good Competition to bring some positivity to people around them. Participants Ellie Huttner and Alyssa Koktavy tied for first place, both with 6 random acts of kindness!



Bennett Brandvold
Bennett Brandvold, LGSW
BSW 2019; MSW 2020

Bennett Brandvold is a graduate of both the BSW (2019) and advanced standing MSW (2020) program at UMD. During his time at UMD Bennett had a field placement at NuWay, an addiction recovery agency in West Duluth. Bennett credits this placement with providing a grounding in the intersections of addiction and mental health. While Bennett is now focusing on clinical mental health services, he says his time at NuWay taught him a lot about substance abuse and helped him to see how all of the things learned in textbooks in class actually play out in people’s lives. Bennett says many things about how the UMD social work program helped him in establishing his career as a professional social worker, especially the focus on Native American social work practice, which he says he wouldn’t have gotten in a different program. Bennett is now using his degree and his experience in the program to launch a private practice counseling center in New Hope, MN with his mother and sister, who are marriage and family therapists. Lineage Counseling sees individuals and families and prioritizes integrity, innovation, and inclusivity, as well as a passion for equitable and authentic practice. 


Karl Becker in front of the community mobile market van
Karl Becker, MSW student

MSW student Karl Becker was the recipient of the Will Dodge Memorial Scholarship for the 2020-2021 year. This scholarship was established to support Social Work students with experience, expertise, and long-term interests in grassroots and community organizing.  

"I am grateful for being chosen as a recipient of the Will Dodge Scholarship. As we all know, higher education is expensive and every amount of support offered helps reduce the barriers students face in achieving their goals. I came into the program without a clear direction, but with the goal of increasing my capacity to help my community. The social work department offers a variety of classes that helped focus my interest in food justice and chart the path to my career. The most exciting part of my education has been being part of the Community Action Duluth Community Mobile Market program that will bring fresh food directly to neighborhoods that do not have a grocery store, such as Morgan Park, Lincoln Park and Harbor Highlands. It has been a wonderful educational experience to be part of the initial planning and development of a new program, and after graduation I will continue my work improving food security in the Duluth area."
-Karl Becker


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Faculty & Staff News

Katt Bongar Hoban

The department welcomes Katt Bongar Hoban, Assistant Professor, who joined the Social Work department in Fall of 2020. Katt shared five fun facts about herself, along with more:

  • She researches social movements because she wants to contribute to building stronger and more inclusive communities of resistance.
  • She has two dogs, Peanut and Trouble. She found both of them in her neighborhood when they were strays.
  • Her favorite outdoor activities are biking, hiking, and park sitting.
  • She has been an ethical vegetarian for 26 years.
  • Katt’s goal as an educator is to support her students in becoming inspired and skilled social change makers.


Sandy Modin

Sandy Modin retired from the Department of Social Work on May 3. Sandy worked for the University of Minnesota Duluth for 23 years in student support positions and with the Department of Social work for 7 years. She was an outstanding student advocate and a friendly and welcoming presence for students coming through our doors. She made the Department run smoothly and her smiling presence will be deeply missed around the office. But we know she will make the most of her retirement, spending time with grandkids and at the cabin!


Abel Knochel

Abel Knochel’s research uses an anti-oppressive framework to study aging among transgender and nonbinary (TNB) people. They are engaged in a multiyear community research partnership with JustUs Health (formerly Rainbow Health Initiative) to understand how midlife and older TNB adults in Minnesota experience medical and aging services, the impacts of these experiences, and what TNB people need in order to age well. Abel and JustUs Health recently published an article from this study, Long-Term Care Expectations and Plans of Transgender and Nonbinary Older Adults, in the Journal of Applied Gerontology. The article can also be found online through the UMD library. Abel also published a chapter in Social Work and Health Care Practice with Transgender and Nonbinary Individuals and Communities, entitled Understanding and Working with Transgender/Nonbinary Older Adults, that describes key aging needs of TNB people and identifies best practices for working with TNB older adults at micro, mezzo, and macro levels. This book is also available online through the UMD library.


Leah Cleeland

Leah Cleeland, Assistant Professor, is an evaluator with the Duluth Veterans Treatment Court, which assists veterans in the criminal justice system who have mental health or addiction issues. The Veterans Treatment Court was selected as a recipient of the 2020 St. Louis County Public Health Achievement Award, which recognizes community partners who have had a significant impact and demonstrated leadership in improving the community’s health.



Estelle Simard

Estelle Simard is in her second year of a visiting scholar role in the Social Work Department. Her research features a theory of cultural attachment – or the idea that one’s connection to culture can help protect their well-being.




Field News

Jenna Grannes holds a white dog
Jenna Grannes, BSW field student
Simone Anzion
Simone Anzion, MSW field student

The field program successfully placed 84 students in placements for the 2020-2021 academic year. Our students are practicing in various settings and formats, ranging from entirely virtual in schools to completely in-person in clinical mental health therapy. Our community social work network has been impressively flexible and creative with students this year, teaching them how the essential profession of social work is vital to supporting people during this difficult time. Read about the field highlights of Jenna Grannes, BSW student, and Simone Anzion, MSW student.


Misha Alaspa
Misha Alaspa, MSW, LGSW

Congratulations to Misha Alaspa, MSW, LGSW, who was awarded the 11th annual Outstanding Field Supervisor award. Misha works as a school social worker for Hermantown Middle School. She has taken UMD Social Work field students for several years, providing students a learning environment in which they can practice social work, ask questions, and grow professionally. She has the valuable skill for meeting social work students where their learning needs are and giving them a robust, rich experience.




Center for Regional & Tribal Child Welfare Studies News

Priscilla Day

Congratulations to Dr. Priscilla Day who will be retiring from the department in May of 2021. Dr. Day has worked in the Department of Social Work since 1993 and served as the Director for the Center for Regional & Tribal Child Welfare Studies for 12 years, along with serving as department chair for two terms. She writes curriculum and trains for the Minnesota DHS. She is a consultant for the Capacity Building Center for Tribes, the Center for Native Child and Family Resilience, and the National Child Welfare Workforce institute. The department wishes Priscilla a very happy retirement!



Jeri Jasken

The Center for Regional and Tribal Child Welfare Studies is leading a new initiative to educate and train all child welfare workers in Minnesota to provide culturally responsive services to American Indian families. Jeri Jasken was hired as the director of Aabinoojiiyag-Wakhanheza Un Thantanhanpi – For all the Children - Sacred Being: Tribal Training and Certification Partnership (TTCP). Jeri is an enrolled tribal member of the White Earth Nation and brings more than 24 years of personal and professional experience to this role.


Upward Bound students at an event

Upward Bound Vision Quest has a long history of helping students break down barriers. The program has been at UMD for the past 30 years. For the last 8 years, UBVQ has been housed in the Department of Social Work and serves students from Denfeld High School in Duluth as well as several Minneapolis schools.