Toni Thorstad and the UMD Social Work Program
Respect is a word Toni Thorstad uses often in her daily life. As an alumna of the University of Minnesota Duluth Social Work graduate program, mother, grandmother, and community activist, Thorstad knows that respect can nourish the human spirit.
Thorstad has received recognition for the care and respect she gives to others. In summer 2009, Thorstad received the Port Cites Woman of the Year award, and in February 2010 the Grant Magnet School Peacemaker Award.
She earned her masters degree in social work from UMD in 2007 and is currently employed with Bridge House in Duluth, Minn. as part of ARMS (Adult Rehabilitation Mental Health Services), a state of Minnesota program. Much of Thorstad’s day is spent teaching skills in a client centered approach to individuals with chronic and persistent mental illness.
During Thorstad's work week, she challenges isolated individuals to use critical thinking skills. She asks her clients to attempt simple tasks like finding a certain landmark in Duluth and reporting to her where they found it and how long it took to find. She asks them to notice what the weather was like. Thorstad is confident that these activities help people interact and overcome their fears. “I don’t judge my clients, it is their story. I respect their journey,” said Thorstad. “Sometimes the goal is just to get them to say “Hi” to a stranger and make eye contact." To most of us, this may seem like an automatic response, but Thorstad knows that the first step in overcoming a fear is often a small one.
While attending UMD, Thorstad admitted she had fears of her own to overcome. She was reluctant to start research because she was afraid she might not be good at it. “I would run away from Denny Falk every time I saw him.” Falk, professor for the Advanced Research course, understood that this had to do with the topic, not his teaching. Still Toni was reluctant. “I would hand in papers by slipping them under his door, just to avoid talking with him.”
Thorstad was a graduate assistant for Anne Tellett, an assistant professor in the MSW program. Tellett fondly recalls, "Toni was never afraid to say what she thought. She has a very strong personality, and we knew she was going to be a great asset to the university. We were right.” While some students might be hesitant to start work involving difficult cases, Thorstad was eager to take on challenges. Once, in her internship at Bridge House, she reported that in one day, she had met with nearly every type of patient listed in the DSM IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and she was fascinated by the opportunity to learn and be of assistance.
Overcoming her fear of research helps Thorstad sympathize with her client's fears. She knows with encouragement and persistence, fears can be overcome. She received this encouragement from people like Falk and Tellett. “When I came to UMD, I wanted a formal learning experience, I wanted to learn the science, the theories, and to understand why emotional and mental hurdles were so difficult for certain individuals in our society.”
Thorstad said that racism is tangible and even at UMD it is difficult to escape. "I was grateful for all the professors and support staff, who were available to talk to when hurtful things happened," she said. She also received support from the Learning Circle at UMD, a positive, safe environment for discussing issues related to all the “isms”. “Just talking about racism, oppression, and other complex issues with people who have been there can really help," Thorstad said. Hearing the stories of others was helpful and at the same time, sharing with other students what life is like as a black woman in Duluth was healing.
The solid respect Thorstad has of all individuals, no matter what the circumstances are, keeps her grounded. "Toni believes in the worth and dignity of people," said Mike Raschick, department head. "That's what she brought to the social work program and that's what is making her such a strong member of the Duluth community."
Written by Alicia Stockard