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This singer is rocking her second calling

Mikayla Simeral talks to a law enforcement officer in a brightly lit conference room.

In her role at Shared Hope International, Mikayla Simeral develops training programs to raise awareness about sex trafficking and prevention measures.

By LORIE BRIGGS ’88 and MA ’13 / Innovative Education

NONE OF THE CAREFREE CONCERTGOERS in St. Petersburg a decade ago could have predicted that the lead singer on stage would be a force for battling human trafficking.

But that’s what Mikayla Simeral has become.

Simeral had a full-time music career, singing and playing tenor saxophone. As a member of the rock band Anchor Atlantic, she joined Panic! at the Disco at the 2011 97X Backyard Barbeque in St. Petersburg and Avril Lavigne at the event in 2014. She had several on-camera auditions for NBC’s “The Voice.”

She found her second calling during a mission trip to Berlin, Germany, when she partnered with a nonprofit working with young sex trafficking victims. Their stories, the suffering they endured and the ensuing damage moved her. She loved her music career, but realized she could have a bigger impact.

“I took it as a sign that I needed to stop chasing glory for myself and figure out how I could help others beyond my music,” she says.

A 2011 USF music education graduate, Simeral also has two advanced music degrees from Liberty University. This year, she added a USF master’s in social work to her resumé. She’s a manager at the nonprofit Shared Hope International, where she educates people about the impact of sex trafficking and how to prevent it.

And, yes, she’s still on stage, still entertaining.

“I’ll never stop singing,” she says.

Human trafficking affects 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.

“I’ve talked to a lot of parents who say, ‘Oh, I tell my children to stay away from white vans,’” Simeral says. “That’s 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.”

Simeral realized that her music degrees limited her professional growth.

“It was pretty evident what I needed to do.”

USF’s fully online master’s program stood out. Simeral liked the curricula, interactive online activities and the high-quality production created by the School of Social Work in partnership with learning designers from USF Innovative Education.

The program also offered the flexibility she needed to balance her responsibilities, which had grown to include a new full-time job and motherhood. She started the program in 2021 during the pandemic and moved to San Diego midway through it. She balanced work with helping teenaged trafficking survivors and singing on weekends.

“I couldn’t slow down my life,” she says.

Today, Simeral is a frequent speaker and trains social workers on recognizing signs of human trafficking and working with vulnerable youth.

“I’m still a performer and a singer,” she says. “Now I have a bigger reason to sing and write music. It’s for these kids I work with. It’s for these families I’m trying to help through the darkest moments of their lives.”