University of South Florida


man with glasses

Michael Hicks, MSW. (Photo courtesy of Hicks)

Transforming lives with social work + public health

March is Social Work Month.

USF College of Public Health (COPH) graduate student Michael Hicks learned early on from his parents, both nurses in behavioral health care services and the Florida state prison systems, about the values of compassion and service. 

After earning his associate of arts degree at Sante Fe College in Gainesville, Fla., Hicks moved to Tampa to attend USF for his bachelor’s in business administration with a concentration in management and finance. 

“In business, I did very well and was director of a successful smaller insurance company,” Hicks said. “But then I noticed changes in spending habits of consumers that would eventually lead to uncertainty in the future for the company. Knowing my wife and I were planning a family and hearing the first rumblings of a global pandemic, I wanted to find something more stable that I knew I would be doing for a long time.”

Hicks returned to higher education at the University of Central Florida in 2020 for his undergraduate psychology degree. “After starting classes I thought back to a really fulfilling job I had right out of high school at a state mental hospital that never felt like a job,” he said. “I decided I wanted to bring my skills to the behavior health care realm to help people instead of just helping companies earn profits or my clients to earn money.”

It was during this time Hicks said he learned about the social work profession and was accepted to USF’s master of social work (MSW) program.

 “I also learned about the concurrent degree program with the COPH and knew it was the perfect complement to what I wanted to achieve in my graduate education and future career aspirations.”

Hicks began his time at the COPH during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, he said he was faced with many obstacles and barriers causing him and his wife to make many sacrifices as a family.

a family of 3

Hicks, right, pictured with wife Katy and two-year-old son Camden. (Photo courtesy of Hicks)

“I stepped away from a well-paying career to “reinvent myself” which came at a financial toll on my family when I started classes,” he said. “My wife and I were also expecting our first child which proved to be difficult given the restrictions in place with maternal health providers at the time, and then she developed preeclampsia and delivered our son prematurely, which resulted in in a month-long stay in the NICU. This stress jeopardized my ability to continue with both programs. However, all my professors were very compassionate during this time and helped me develop a plan to continue.”

Along with the support of his wife and the compassion his professors showed, Hicks said he was also impressed by how the college adapted to the public health crisis.

“Faculty from the college were tasked with providing professional insights into a vast number of public health concerns,” he said. “We were able to use this global public health issue in the subjects we were learning about in class. It was a unique time for everyone and especially interesting for those studying public health.”

Hicks graduated from the MSW program in the summer of 2023 and anticipates earning his MPH with a concentration in behavioral health care this spring.

“Although I found myself in the MPH program after originally starting in a different path, I’m so proud to be part of a program that is a leader in the profession,” Hicks said. “I believe the COPH is one of the best programs in the country because of the faculty's knowledge and research resources available to the students. The concepts I have learned in this program will allow me to be a very valuable asset to any employer.”

Hicks said his first public health career experience was with his applied practice experience internship with the Florida Mental Health Advocacy Coalition.

“This was a great opportunity to learn about the politics that govern behavioral health in Florida and the actions citizens can take to influence lawmakers to push agendas that benefit behavioral health care in the state,” Hicks said. “One of our main initiatives was to promote and gain funding for the 988 Mental Health Crisis and Suicide Helpline. This is a very important resource for many people in our country. They need to access it if they are in crisis, experiencing substance use issues or are thinking about suicide.”

Currently, Hicks works as a counselor at a substance use and co-occurring disorder residential treatment program for the Agency for Community Treatment Services.  

“I’m able to significantly impact the lives of many individuals who have suffered from behavioral health issues for most of their lives,” Hicks said. “It is no understatement to say that we save lives. I provide individual and group therapeutic services for adults who are suffering severe substance use issues during the early phase of treatment.”

Hicks said he uses the concepts he learned in the MPH program to guide his work in his current role, along with his own life experiences. “My own experiences with substance use in young adulthood pales in comparison to those I help in our program, simply because I was able to get early intervention and I had a good support system that started me through the process of receiving help. Working with this population has been life changing for me because I see just how bad it really is for those we serve.”

“Although as a counselor I work at the individual level, I also look at population statistics to identify trends, find evidence-based practices that are proven to address the needs of my clients and advocate for people who may not have the ability to represent themselves,” he said.

In the future, Hicks said he has very high expectations for himself, including earning his clinical licensure and accreditation as a master's certified addictions professional in the next year.

“Just as in the social work profession, public health professionals play diverse roles in serving the population's health needs,” Hicks said. “I plan to combine the skills I’ve gained in my business career with my education in social work and public health and use them in a career with an organization that develops, evaluates and implements programs and policies that inform substance use and co-occurring disorder clinical practice.”

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Welcome to the USF COPH news page. Our marketing and communications team is entrusted with storytelling. Through written stories, photography, video and social media we highlight alumni, faculty, staff and students who are committed to passionately solving problems and creating conditions that allow every person the universal right to health and well-being. These are our stories.