University of South Florida

Innovative Education


Versatile Online MSW Program Empowers Advocate Against Human Trafficking

Not all rock’n’roll singers decide to switch their careers to full-time nonprofit work, but Mikayla Simeral did, and it’s why she chose USF’s online Master of Social Work to propel her career of helping others. 

Simeral, a 2023 graduate of the online MSW, is using the knowledge she gained in the program to combat human trafficking, particularly among minors. She is a manager at Shared Hope International, where she develops training programs to educate people about how sex trafficking impacts domestic minors, and prevention measures.

It is a bigger battle than most people think, impacting a staggering 27.6 million people in the United States each year, according to the U.S. Department of State. Traffickers exploit people of all ages, backgrounds, and nationalities through force, fraud, or coercion for labor or commercial sex acts. 

What makes her work even more critical is the fact that human trafficking now extends into the online realm. Children can be trafficked without leaving their homes, and predators are using social media as their hunting grounds. 

“I've talked to a lot of parents who say, ‘Oh, I tell my children to stay away from white vans, I tell my children not to talk to strangers’,” said Simeral. “That's like the 1990s version of it. The white vans now exist on Instagram. The white vans now exist on Snapchat. Kids and predators are living online. We must teach parents how to keep their kids safe without taking the phone away because it's not an option.”

A heart for service

Simeral didn’t envision a career combatting human trafficking. She earned a degree in music education while gigging the local music scene. She landed a position as a middle school band teacher. She was offered a singer role in a rock band about the same time. She chose the latter.

“When you're 22, what are you going to pick?”

She worked as a lead singer in the band for about five years. She played gigs at night and during the day, either worked as a substitute teacher or volunteered at All Children’s Hospital, helping with music therapy for kids with cancer.

“I loved it. It was wonderful. But I always felt like I was meant for something more, something bigger to give back, and I wanted to move.”

She headed to San Diego, met her future husband, and earned a master’s degree in ethnomusicology from Liberty University. Then her husband’s military career moved them to Washington, D.C., where she landed a job as a global outreach director for a church. In this role, she was able to travel doing missions work. One of those spots was Berlin, Germany, where she was able to work with Pink Door, an organization working with women coming out of trafficking and prostitution. That pink door changed her career trajectory.

“Pink Door was a safe house for women who wanted to leave the life of prostitution because it's legal in Germany. In Berlin, there's over 600 brothels just in that one city,” said Simeral. “I fell in love with the direct work with survivors in Berlin.”

“Working directly with these kids, your heart obviously breaks, but you see so much resilience in them and you say, okay, how can we prevent this from happening?”

Witnessing the resilience of these young survivors inspired her to focus on prevention. When the couple returned to her hometown of St. Petersburg, she joined More Too Life, a nonprofit connecting survivors of human trafficking with mentors.

A versatile degree in a flexible format 

Simeral realized that her music degrees limited her professional growth.

Woman sits on couch

“I wanted to work with kids. I wanted to influence the field, not only on a micro level, but eventually a macro level. It was pretty evident what I needed to do.” 

USF's fully online MSW program stood out for its dedicated faculty, robust curriculum that blends theory and real-world application, and the strong sense of community among its online students. The curricula and intentional learning path, interactive online activities and high-quality production was created in partnership with faculty in the School of Social Work and learning designers from USF Innovative Education.  

The program also offered the flexibility she needed to balance her responsibilities, which now included a full-time job and motherhood. She started the program in 2021, during a pandemic, moved back to San Diego midway through the program, with a husband who was pursuing an MBA while continuing to work full-time job helping teenage girls who were survivors of human trafficking. She was still gigging as a singer on weekends.

“I couldn’t slow down my life!,” said Simeral. "I had to keep showing up for these for these kids that I was working with. I had to be a present mother for my eight-month-old son, and the only way that I could keep showing up for those people in my life is if I did an online MSW program.”

Simeral was able to complete her internship at More Too Life in Florida, even though she was physically in California. Or Washington state, where she often travelled as part of a new job at Shared Hope International, an organization on a mission to end sex trafficking through prevention, restoration, and justice initiatives.

The online MSW program at USF fostered an intentional community. Despite being physically distant, Simeral and her peers formed meaningful connections and engaged in open discussions. This camaraderie helped them build lasting bonds.

“A lot of people, they thought I was crazy for doing it when I did but honestly, if it wasn't for the online convenience of it, I don't think I could have.”

Immediately applicable lessons

Simeral said she applied lessons learned in real time in real life.

Her favorite course was Research and Statistics, which made one of her professors laugh because few MSW students pinpoint analytics as their favorite subject, despite how necessary it is. Writing grants, reporting outcomes and securing funding requires data.

“The fact that I could in real time hear a lecture from my professor in Research and Statistics, apply it to an Excel spreadsheet that I needed to get done as a supervisor to produce the numbers, the graphs that we needed, well, I absolutely loved that. I was doing research and statistics, producing data, talking to legislators, and talking to other professionals.”

Now, Simeral is a frequent speaker, continuing to train social workers on recognizing signs of human trafficking and working with vulnerable youth – with an MSW credential.

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USF Innovative Education is a powerhouse of creativity and collaboration, offering a range of faculty-related services including learning design, multimedia development, technology integration, and support for teaching and learning. We help faculty transform courses into dynamic learning experiences, providing training and support for various programs. We work with both experienced and new faculty, assisting them in integrating technology and staying up to date with educational trends.