Though many students leave college with an idea of what they want to do, sometimes life has another plan for them. This was exactly the case for ECU alumna Melissa Harrell, who found her true passion while pursuing a degree in other another field.
“I graduated from ECU with a bachelor’s in dance education, but my teacher commented that I was drawn to the emotional needs of my students,” said Harrell, who graduated in 1995. “[She said] I should consider pursuing school counseling, and that planted the seed. So I worked using my dance education degree while I completed my master’s degree in school counseling.”
Along with her genuine interest in others, Harrell also knows first-hand about how to handle emotional needs and overcoming tragedy.
“I grew up watching my mother and grandmother battle severe depression. It ultimately led to their premature deaths, and my mother was only 52 when she died,” said Harrell. “Trying to wrestle with my own grief and helping my friend’s family cope led me to seek special certifications in grief counseling. While difficult, helping people in their darkest hour continues to be one of the greatest privileges of my career.”
Since graduating, Harrell has stayed busy. She currently owns a counseling center in Goldsboro, N.C. and runs two support groups in Wayne County: H.E.A.R.T and Footprints.
H.E.A.R.T., which stands for Helping Engage Area Resources Together, is a support group for mothers with prenatal mood disorders. Footprints is a support group that was created for families dealing with a miscarriage or the loss of an infant. Both groups provide a safe place for members to share their feelings and experiences with people dealing with similar situations.
Along with that, she has also written a book entitled “Elizabeth and Stella meet ZOE.” The book talks about her mission work with ZOE, which stands for Zimbabwe Orphan Endeavors, and the experience she had with one little girl in Kenya.
“I traveled to Kenya to meet the children in our group [and] I immediately fell in love with these children and this model of empowerment. We went to visit Stella at her home and I was so touched that this young person, who has so little compared to American standards, wanted to share what little she had with us,” said Harrell. “When I returned home, I began to work on the book. After two years of writing, rewriting, and prayer [the book was born].”
Despite all of her success, Harrell decided to come back to ECU and complete her master’s in public health, with a certificate in ethnic and rural health disparities. She is currently a full time grad school student.
“Traveling to Kenya and working in missions for the past five years has opened my eyes to public health issues, both global and in our own back yards,” said Harrell. “I was led back to ECU because of the commitment this university and [the Brody School of Medicine] have for the underserved of eastern North Carolina. What I learned [at ECU] has been invaluable in helping families navigate through the school system, especially my clients with special needs.”
Though Harrell has done a lot for her community, she still believes she can do more. After graduation, she wants to use her public health degree to help bring more awareness to mental health issues and help reduce the poverty and health disparities in eastern North Carolina.
Harrell also stressed the importance of taking care of oneself, a reflection of both her hectic lifestyle and her background in mental health.
“No matter the career field, find a way to balance your life,” said Harrell. “Take time to enjoy things for yourself, as well as nurturing the relationships you’re in.”
By Michael Avila