When Amanda Mullen first learned about Saint Leo University, it was her husband who was originally interested in finding a bachelor's degree program. Little did she know the search would land her in Saint Leo's Master of Social Work online degree program herself.

The 28-year-old native of Jacksonville, NC now calls North Charleston, SC home. She and her husband, John, have two dogs. Pablo Escobar, named for the Netflix documentary about the infamous Colombian drug cartel ringleader, is a Shih Tzu. Cocoa, whose name reflects their love of baking brownies, is a Maltese, poodle, and Yorkie mix.

Ascending to Air Force Service

For six years right after graduating from Northside High School in North Carolina, Mullen served her country in the U.S. Air Force as a senior airman in the security forces.

"I grew up in an all-military town," she explains. "I knew that I couldn't afford to pay for college myself, so I decided to go into the military where I knew I could get an education. I found the Air Force to be very family oriented."

She was hoping to enlist with her sister in a unique 'Buddy Program,' but her sister ended up going into the Army.

While enlisted, she served three deployments. One such deployment took her to Afghanistan.

"Spending time in Afghanistan definitely had an impact on my career decision," she says. "Seeing the interactions of our military men and women with the locals there made me realize how much I wanted to help others. That's why I decided to pursue a social work career."

Educational Endeavors

Mullen earned a bachelor's degree in applied behavioral science from Ashford University, which was an online degree program. She completed this degree while still in the military. She explains how she balanced the two commitments.

"It was a lot of hard work, a lot of sleepless nights. But I was so determined to get my bachelor's degree. My then-boyfriend and current husband was so supportive of me and encouraged me."

Her husband, John, also served in the Air Force.

Discovering Saint Leo University's Master of Social Work Degree Program

Saint Leo University's current Charleston Education Center used to be housed in another location in the area. Mullen and her husband first discovered the university after paying a visit to this center.

"It was housed on the campus of another school," she says. "My husband was looking for a bachelor's degree program. But when we visited and talked to the people there, we found out about the Master of Social Work program. I didn't think I'd ever go back to school after my undergraduate studies, but after I talked to an advisor, I was absolutely sold and decided to go for it."

Online MSW Program Highlights

In the fall of 2018, she enrolled in the MSW in Advanced Clinical Practice online degree program. She thoroughly enjoyed one specific course she took in the social work curriculum.

"Our leadership class was the best class I took. In this class, we had to build a nonprofit organization from the ground up and present our proposal to potential investors. It was a great project to work on and very practical. We had 16 group members working on it together virtually."

She has enjoyed all of her professors, especially Drs. Robert Lucio and Lisa Rapp-McCall.

"I think I've annoyed Dr. Lucio enough," she jokes. "But in all seriousness, all of my instructors have been very willing to help any students, even when it's not during a class period when classes get together virtually at a certain time. They're also always willing to respond to emails in a timely manner."

Several of her classes in this graduate online degree program met weekly on Zoom, making her feel very engaged.

"It's about as close as you can get to a traditional classroom setting," she says. "I felt very connected to my classmates and instructors. I thought our cohort was really strong. We had some other military veterans and people from a variety of fields like IT, business administration, and even some in the medical field. It also varied quite a bit in terms of the demographics of everyone."

A Unique Remote Support Service During the Pandemic

She was one of several Saint Leo MSW students who participated in a chat line to support others during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"When the pandemic started, a lot of face-to-face internships, especially in social work, had to shut down," she explains. "So, we were worried about not being able to meet the requirement for internship hours in our program. We were also very concerned about those who have mental illnesses and those who don't but could develop them during this pandemic."

It was Premier Medical Associates in Florida that heard about this challenge and stepped up to start a Care Chatline that could be staffed by Saint Leo's social work graduate students.

"We got several students together and started this assistance chat line with Susan Roy at Premier. We staffed the line one day per week and offered support and resources to people who were lonely and those dealing with stress, anxiety, and depression. We mainly focused on the elderly living in retirement facilities who couldn't see their family and friends due to restrictions on visitors."

In terms of the core values that Saint Leo University instills in all students, the concept of community resonates with Mullen most and was certainly a major aspect of the Care Chatline.

"As social workers, we have to be part of our communities and be really helpful to others, especially during a time like this pandemic. We have to find unique ways to build relationships within our communities because there are so many people who will lean on us for support."

Early Experience in Her Social Work Career

Mullen has had a few opportunities to gain professional experience while pursuing her MSW degree from Saint Leo. She most recently interned with OriginSC, a South Carolina-based nonprofit, in its family violence intervention program. She has worked with a variety of clients who are victims of domestic violence, have been perpetrators of domestic violence, or those who may need anger management support.

"It's never a dull day for me," she admits. "I'm honestly shocked at how violently someone can become toward another family member. I also see how so many victims are almost always willing to stay with the perpetrator."

In 2019, she interned at a group home for pregnant teenage girls.

"It was a lot of fun working with those girls," she shares. "It's so nice to see the progress that is made by the people you are working with after several months of therapy. It's very rewarding. In addition to the therapy we provided, the girls learned about the birth process, parenting skills, job readiness, and lots of other practical skills."

Thanks to her Air Force service, recent experience, and education, she has mapped out a plan in her mind about what she'd like to specifically do in her social work career.

"When I started in this MSW program, I was set on working with military vets because I've seen the damage that military service can do to some people. But after working with the homeless, I definitely want to specialize in helping homeless vets. I would love to start up a halfway house for vets who are transitioning out of the military and need a place to live. I've had quite a few friends who struggled with this transition to civilian life, and I want to be able to help people with this process."

Photo credit: The photograph included in this blog article was provided by Amanda Mullen and is used with permission.