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Bachelor of Social Work Professor Thrives in Versatile Career

Meet Dr. Sha’Leda Mirra, an assistant professor in Saint Leo University’s Bachelor of Social Work degree program who is also an ordained pastor at a church and does private counseling.

A head shot of Dr. Sha'Leda Mirra, an assistant professor in the Bachelor of Social Work degree program at Saint Leo University who is also a Saint Leo alumna and is an ordained pastor and owner of a private counseling practice

Dr. Sha’Leda Mirra knows no limits. Not only is she an assistant professor in the Bachelor of Social Work degree program at Saint Leo University, but she is also an ordained pastor and social work practitioner.

The 38year-old is a native and current resident of Lake City, FL. She is married to her high school sweetheart, Christopher, who served in the U.S. Army Reserves for 22 years. They have two daughters, Cadence and Chrystian, and two ‘bully’ dogs, Camaro and Zayne.

A Varied Educational Journey

As a youngster, Mirra originally had aspirations of being an attorney. She even received the Minority Participation in Legal Education Scholarship while attending Columbia High School where she graduated in 2000.

“I had received a full ride to attend another university,” Mirra recalls. “My husband was starting out in the Army Reserves at the time and he didn’t want me to leave the area. So, that’s when I decided to attend Saint Leo University for one of their online degree programs.”

She initially earned a bachelor’s in criminology and psychology degree and a master’s in criminal justice from Saint Leo University. She worked for the Department of Children and Families for a special unit which dealt with child sex crimes. However, she realized that this career path wasn’t quite up her alley.

That’s when Mirra decided to pursue a new but somewhat related career – social work. She earned her Master of Social Work degree from Saint Leo.

“I am proud to say that I was in the very first cohort of the Master of Social Work program,” she says. “I immediately fell in love with social work.”

In addition to her social work graduate degree, she attained a Master of Divinity from Regent University.

“Earning my Master of Divinity was really transformative for me. I was truly able to explore religion from a broad standpoint. I have always had a strong relationship with God, but getting to explore my own spiritual formation was very transformative. I love how I’ve been able to integrate faith into social work.”

In 2020, she completed her Ph.D. in general psychology with a specialization in child and adolescent development from Capella University.

“One of the big reasons I pursued my Ph.D. was because of my dad,” she says. “He died at the age of 38 due to substance use. He was always big on education and told me to reach for the stars.”

Along with her degrees, Mirra is licensed through the Florida Certification Board with the Institute of Chemical Dependency Studies. She is also nationally credentialed as an alcohol and drug counselor and is a licensed clinical social worker.

Joining the Faculty in Saint Leo’s Bachelor of Social Work Degree Program

Having earned three degrees from Saint Leo, Mirra thought it would be very rewarding to pay it forward by getting an opportunity to teach for the university at some point.

“I had always wanted to teach for my alma mater,” she explains. “At one point, I talked with Dr. Rhondda waddell and Kimberly White, both of whom are professors at Saint Leo. They were both very instrumental in me coming to teach at the university. They introduced me to Dr. Marguerite McInnis, the previous chair of the Bachelor of Social Work program. Before I knew it, I was on board as an instructor for the university.”

She began her career with Saint Leo University in the summer of 2016 and initially taught at Saint Leo’s Gainesville, FL Education Center. She now teaches mostly for the Tampa Education Center but is primarily teaching online courses.

Benefits of Online Learning

According to Mirra, there are a number of major benefits to online learning for certain students.

“The online environment brings so much richness into a virtual classroom,” she says. “It really allows us as instructors to bring a wealth of practical applicability into the courses we teach.”

She likes to integrate guest speakers from around the country, Mursion technology through simulated experiences, TED Talks, and even virtual movie and popcorn events.

“We love the freedom and flexibility of the virtual environment and how well it works for students who have full-time careers or are raising a family. It allows us to be more versatile in some cases.”

She adds that the online learning environment has offered plenty of practical experience to students who will likely be using this technology in some form in their social work careers.

“With COVID-19, many of us in this field have started embracing telehealth,” she says. “This past fall, we had a course that incorporated the micro-counseling model. Students got to experience working with clients through case management and brokering in a virtual setting.”

Social Work Courses of Note

She has taught a variety of classes within the undergraduate social work degree program. Some that come to her mind are the three sequential Methods of Social Work Practice courses.

“I love teaching the first class in this sequence because of the clinical piece and how students get to master what it’s like to work one-on-one with clients in an individual setting.”

She also enjoys teaching Gerontology, Human Behavior in the Social Environment, and the Senior Seminar course. She has developed a number of new classes for the Bachelor of Social Work curriculum as well, including one called Religion, Spirituality, and Working Professions.

Mirra’s Teaching Style

For Mirra, interaction is a critical part of how she approaches each class.

“I am a very hands-on professor. I believe in teaching classes in which students receive a lived experience. I want to give them as much experiential knowledge as possible. This is done through role-playing activities, bringing in guest speakers, and other strategies. I believe in equipping students to be practitioners as soon as they step out of the classroom.”

She also offers up a different take on a common cliché.

“People say that knowledge is power. I say applied knowledge is power. I present students with the knowledge I’ve learned over time, but I try to create a safe environment for them in which they can apply this knowledge so that when they’re in the field, they will be an asset to the communities they serve.”

She explains what is most rewarding about working as a college professor.

“It’s so gratifying getting to watch a student’s growth from the moment they come into the program and morph into a beautiful butterfly in the field. Seeing students become my colleagues is amazing.”

Preaching and Teaching

After attaining her Master of Divinity, Mirra has also pursued another vocation –pastoring for an African Methodist Episcopal Church. She serves as the senior pastor at Union African Methodist Episcopal Church in Lake City.

“I enjoy the educational piece of pastoring,” she says. “I always tell people that I’m more of a teacher than a preacher. My thought is that if we teach those who are entrusted in us as shepherds and model how to apply this to their lives, not only will they have joy-filled lives, but the beautiful thing is that they will have access to eternal life.”

She also teaches a weekly Bible study course.

“We go through all of the verses and take the time to break them down. My goal is to show how the Bible is basically one big love story.”

In her research, she has explored the relationship between faith-centered communities and help-seeking attitudes. Her Ph.D. dissertation looked at the relationship between African-American males and the African Methodist Episcopal Church from the standpoint of mental health and wellness.

“There is a lot of stigma in the black community about mental illness,” she says. “The black church has such a collective conscience because it holds a very vital role in social justice. If the black church spends more time educating members on mental wellness and promoting positive attitudes toward mental health, this stigma would decrease.”

Social Work Career

On top of her academic and faith-based roles, she manages to maintain a part-time private social work practice on the side. Known as The Heart Centered Journey Counseling, Coaching, and Consultation, she supports a wide range of clients.

“I am open to seeing almost anyone from any age group,” she says.

Her specialties include micro-clinical practice, maternal mental health, and child safety. She is also passionate about helping members of the veteran population dealing with substance use challenges.

In 2019, Mirra published her first book, fittingly called The Heart Centered Journey, which covers self-discovery and self-exploration.

“It provides lots of tools to help readers achieve mental and spiritual wellness.”

Looking into a Crystal Ball

In terms of her career in academia, she hopes to serve in more leadership roles down the road, potentially as the dean of a college.

As for her church career, she has a very specific goal she’d love to attain someday.

“I love pastoring, but I think God has shown me that something I’d enjoy doing is to develop some type of internal spiritual assistance program for both a church’s staff and its congregation. I’d like to be able to have a place for church members to come in order to improve their overall mental and spiritual wellness. In the end, I’m trying to forge the gap between psychology and theology.”

Finally, she’d like to serve as the editor of a journal that ties together mental and spiritual wellness.

Hobbies Rooted in Creativity

In her free time, she dabbles in photography and painting. She also loves reading authors like Toni Morrison, along with poets Audre Lorde, Ian Thomas, and Rupi Kaur. She is even working on her own book of prose poetry.

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