Shelley Dodt proves that it's never too late to pursue a graduate degree and whole new career. An alumna of Saint Leo University's Master of Social Work online (MSW) program, she has worked her way up to a career in which she is thriving and enjoying every moment of it.

The 66-year-old originally hails from Pittsburgh, PA but now resides in sunny Palm City, FL on Florida's east coast. She is married to Hal and has a son, Aramis and a daughter, Kimberly. The couple also has three cats and a dog.

Early Years

In the 1970s before she pursued higher education, Dodt was a certified respiratory therapist and worked in this role for several years. In 1981, she attained a bachelor's degree in sociology and anthropology from Chatham University in Pittsburgh, which was a women's college at the time.

Prior to getting into a social work career, Dodt owned a physician recruitment company called MedFind, Inc. for two decades.

"I recruited physicians for hospitals and for other physicians," she explains. "I worked all over the state of Florida with hospital chains, individual medical practices, and other facilities across all specialties."

A New Attitude

In 2009, Dodt was diagnosed with 'stage 0' breast cancer. She became part of a clinical trial at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa under the direction of Dr. Brian Czerniecki.

"They took my cells and used them for this clinical trial," she explains. "They created an immunotherapy vaccine through which my immune system is able to search and destroy cancer cells. They are using this vaccine currently at Moffitt."

During this unanticipated journey, she came across a number of cancer patients who were dealing with psychosocial challenges like anxiety and depression.

"Seeing this made me want to pursue a social work career and help others overcome these challenges," she says.

She then became a patient advocate. She is a graduate of the Project LEAD program from the National Breast Cancer Coalition.

"I'm also a research advocate in which I help with other clinical trials for breast cancer treatments. I help people find out about the latest clinical trials that might be able to help them. My goal is to help underserved populations like minorities, the LGBT community, and others."

Choosing Saint Leo's Online MSW Program

Because of her efforts during and after her bout with breast cancer, she says pursuing the online MSW program at Saint Leo University was almost meant to be.

"It was kind of a natural path for me to take," she explains. "I will say I started a program at another school but didn't feel like I fit in. I tend to be more liberal-minded and want social justice, and this Master of Social Work program just resonated with me a lot more."

In 2014 at age 60, she began the online MSW program.

"I've never felt old and have never seen age as a negative thing. My mom is 92 and still healthy."

She says prior experience earning an online certificate made her feel comfortable with the online format of this graduate degree program.

"Since I had done the patient advocate program from the University of Miami online, it had prepared me for that type of learning," she explains. "I found the material very interesting, well-organized, well-structured, and easy to follow. The CSWE-accredited sequence is planned out very well throughout the curriculum as well."

The convenience was also second-to-none.

"I just loved the online modality because I didn't have to travel anywhere to go to class and could do a lot of the work on my schedule."

She says she bonded with several classmates and enjoyed having this support system during the program. She talked with some on the phone and even attended conferences together with a few.

"I still talk to two of them – Lisa Schmidt and Charo Anderson. They are both older students and also happen to be in Florida."

Notable Social Work Instructors and Courses in the Online MSW Program

When asked about her instructors, several of the Saint Leo faculty teaching in the program immediately come to her mind. These include Dr. Lisa Rapp-McCall, Dr. Jim Whitworth, and Prof. Elizabeth Ruegg.

"The caliber of the instructors was excellent," she says. "The instructors were always readily available. I knew them and they knew me. They were even kind enough to give feedback on my papers before I officially turned them in. Many of the classes used videoconferencing, so I knew what the instructors and my classmates looked like. This format was a difference maker for me."

Many of her classes were also memorable.

"I loved the trauma course. So much of what social workers do is because people have been traumatized in their lives. My first two classes, Human Behavior in the Social Environment and Methods of Social Work Practice, had the biggest impact on me. A leadership course on organizational psychology was also very interesting."

In addition to her online coursework, she attended two of the social work conferences held on campus each fall and says those experiences made her feel even more connected to the campus and the university as a whole.

In terms of the core values at Saint Leo, Dodt says they all rung true with her.

"I loved all of these core values. I have strong beliefs that aligned with those values. Having them incorporated into our courses meant a lot to me, especially these days when so many of our values are being torn apart."

She put a bow on her graduate degree and wrapped up the program in 2016.

Considering Saint Leo's Master of Social Work Program?

Dodt offers up her advice to any prospective students who are weighing their options on social work degree programs.

"First off, I would say start with a Bachelor of Social Work program, which Saint Leo University also offers. Then I'd highly recommend this MSW program. It was a lifesaver and gave me a solid career in a field that is definitely needed out there. It has afforded me the ability to make a very good living and achieve my dreams of helping others. Not only that, but the program prepares graduates for the LCSW exam. Overall, I felt well supported in the program."

She can't stress enough how much the social work field is growing and how it is perhaps one of the most opportunistic industries in the world in the coming years.

"This is a field where we'll have an increased demand for individuals as time goes on. There are so many areas to focus on and specialize in. I'm always learning something new."

A Trio of Roles Helping Others

Along with her Master of Social Work degree, she has certificates from Barry University in mindfulness and therapeutic practice and another in brain spotting from the Southeastern Brain Institute. Plus, she is a board-certified patient advocate.

Currently, Dodt wears three hats in her social work career. She has a private practice called A Cottage for Counseling in Stuart, FL. She also works for Mind Matters, a psychiatric practice in Palm Beach Gardens. Additionally, she does international counseling to clients worldwide through BetterHelp, an online service with a large network of licensed counselors.

"With BetterHelp, I'm allowed to practice and see clients in Florida and in other countries," she explains. "I've worked with clients from Canada, England, Germany, Hungary, South Korea, and Japan. It's exciting for me to get a global perspective and learn about customs and cultures in other countries."

Due to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, she has been working from home like millions of other Americans in recent months. Fortunately, many health insurance companies and Medicare are now covering counseling sessions held virtually that would normally be done in a brick-and-mortar office.

"I think the online sessions are just as effective for clients as the in-person ones," she says. "Plus, you have to remember that 70 percent of human communication is nonverbal. It would be challenging communicating with someone in person as well if they are wearing a mask because you wouldn't see their full nonverbal facial expressions. So, seeing them on video without a mask is definitely better."

The flexibility of her work is an added bonus, she says.

"I work by appointment, so I can really set my schedule. If I need to take a day off or want to go on vacation, I just don't book any appointments. The online option is also great because if you are traveling and have Internet access, you can still do appointments. I think more and more of this field will move to online sessions over time in general. Plus, you don't need an international license to practice in certain countries, and there is reciprocity on licenses in certain states here in the U.S."

When interacting with her clients, she always takes a positive approach to the conversation.

"One aspect I love about a social work career is that I look at a person's strengths in their environment. There is always more 'right' with a person than 'wrong.'"

When not practicing social work, she enjoys gardening and doing yoga and Pilates.

LEARN MORE: Visit Shelley Dodt's website at to learn more about her journey.

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

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