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A finalist for Initiator's Fellowship, Schutte Wadzinski dreams of opening her own law firm in Worthington

A 2008 Worthington High School graduate, Schutte Wadzinski attended Yale University and earned her law degree from the University of Connecticut. Taking law school classes at night, she spent her days working in Yale’s office of international affairs. That experience inspired her interest in immigration law.

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Erin Schutte Wadzinski is one of 15 finalists selected for an Initiators Fellowship, a two-year program that links aspiring entrepreneurs with a mentor and provides a stipend and programming to advance their ideas. Schutte Wadzinski wants to open her own law firm in Worthington to specialize in immigrant law. (Special to The Globe)

WORTHINGTON — Local immigration attorney Erin Schutte-Wadzinski is one of 15 finalists for an Initiators Fellowship from the Little Falls-based Initiative Foundation.

She and 14 others were selected from a pool of 80 applicants from across central, southwest and west central Minnesota for a fellowship. Of the finalists, seven of the aspiring social entrepreneurs will be chosen to have their ideas fast-tracked, take part in a two-year program and receive an annual $30,000 stipend.

Schutte Wadzinski’s fellowship application focuses on her dream of opening a new law firm in Worthington that specializes in immigration law.

A 2008 Worthington High School graduate, Schutte Wadzinski attended Yale University and earned her law degree from the University of Connecticut. Taking law school classes at night, she spent her days working in Yale’s office of international affairs. That experience inspired her interest in immigration law.

Upon completion of law school, she and her husband, Tyler, moved to Worthington a year ago to pursue their careers — she as an immigration attorney with the nonprofit Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota (ILCM) and he as a chemistry teacher at Minnesota West Community and Technical College.

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“I realized immigration is really the perfect nexus between my international work and a law career,” Schutte Wadzinski said. “I feel like there’s no more important place to practice immigration law than my hometown of Worthington.”

Schutte Wadzinski’s work today with ILCM includes providing free legal services to low-income immigrants and refugees. She assists individuals with lawful permanent residence (those with a Green Card who have been in the U.S. for a minimum of five years) apply for U.S. citizenship.

In little more than a year, Schutte Wadzinski has helped dozens of individuals through the process which, she explained, takes about a year to complete.

“Through my work at Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, I’ve fallen in love with the practice of immigration law and serving my hometown community,” she said. “It’s been a joy to be able to provide free legal service to low-income immigrants and refugees.”

If she is selected for a fellowship, Schutte Wadzinski said the law firm she wants to establish would offer legal services to immigrants and refugees across the region at below-market, fixed rates, based on their immigration case type. She sees the opportunity as a way to collaborate with, rather than compete against, her current employer.

“There’s certainly a high demand for legal assistance in the area,” she said. “I would be eager to continue collaborating with ILCM.”

Schutte Wadzinski said with ILCM’s focus on providing free services, the agency isn’t able to serve everyone.

“There is a resource gap where many people from this area are needing to travel to Sioux Falls or Omaha or Minneapolis to hire an expensive immigration attorney,” she said. “My hope is to try and address that gap and provide affordable, accessible, high quality legal representation right here in Worthington.”

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If Schutte Wadzinski earns a fellowship, she hopes to create a law firm that inspires individuals to consider a career in immigration law.

“Early on I’d like to create internship and volunteer opportunities for high school, college and law school students and young people from this area so they can see the potential in the field of immigration law and help them realize there are job opportunities in that field right here in Worthington,” she said.

Her long-term dream is to grow the office to a multi-lawyer firm that attracts local talent.

For now, Schutte Wadzinski remains focused on her next step. She and fellow finalists will take part in a full day of activities Oct. 25 at St. John’s University, where they will be interviewed, pitch their proposal and have time to meet each other. The finalists have been told a decision will be made on the seven fellowships before the end of this month.

“I’m very honored to be selected as a finalist,” Schutte Wadzinski said. “I think it goes to show the importance of providing resources to Worthington’s large and growing immigrant population.

“Immigrants are vital to this community and we need to do our very best to make this a welcoming place for them to live,” she added.

Fellowship applicants hailed from 41 Greater Minnesota counties. Of the seven fellows to be selected, three will be chosen from the Initiative Foundation’s Central Minnesota service area and two each will be from the Southwest Initiative Foundation and West Central Initiative service areas. Four of the 15 finalists are from the Southwest Initiative Foundation service area.

“We are proud of all our finalists,” said Scott Marquardt, Southwest Initiative Foundation’s vice president and lead staff for the Initiators Fellowship in the southwest region. “We were impressed by the diversity, caliber and number of applicants from our region. It speaks to the strong spirit of entrepreneurship in southwest Minnesota. We’re excited to see new and growing ventures take off through this unique fellowship opportunity.”

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