Arts & Sciences

Psychology professor teaches online, connects worldwide

January 13, 2015 by Cindy O'Dell
Dr. Sharon Mijares shares a laugh with Uganda women who were dancing to thank her for visiting them.

Dr. Sharon Mijares shares a laugh with Uganda women who were dancing to thank her for visiting them.

Their faces say it all: Ugandan women with wide smiles and Dr. Sharon Mijares looking equally delighted. Even in a still photograph you can almost hear the music and see the swaying hips and tapping feet. Could there be a better way to say “thank you?”

“When they first started, I started to video them, but then I thought ‘no, I should be joining them’,” said Mijares of her impromptu dance. It’s one of the many ways that Mijares exemplifies what Associate Dean Michael McGuire calls “the wonderful and creative work of Brandman instructors.”

Mijares had been invited to the East Ugandan village by Maggie Ndagire of the Women and Children’s Empowerment Network in Africa (WACENA) to speak to the women about ways to earn a living. She hopes to connect the village to someone willing to donate money for them to buy sewing, which cost about $150 .

She arrived in Uganda after attending a conference in Rabat, Morocco, on women and monotheism. From there she traveled to Egypt to meet Aliaa Rafea, one of her co-editors of “A Force as the World Has Never Know: Women Creating Change,” to discuss plans for promoting the message in their books and at the same time visit Saqqara, a 5,000-year-old pyramid, as well as other ancient sites. When we caught up with her, she was in Bolivia, working with a feminist group and taking Spanish lessons before heading to Costa Rica for a women’s conference and finally returning home to San Diego.

Mijares credits being an online professor for making it possible to go so many places and still teach. Students, particularly in the Spirituality and Mental Health psychology course she devised, have benefited from her world travels and interactions with people of various religions.

“I encourage students to see a wider spectrum. We want to move past ethnocentricity. I think psychology is going to expand to be much more inclusive. There is such a need to have a wider knowledge of human relations,” said Mijares, who also teaches psychology courses on research methods.

Dr. Sharon Mijares listens to the concerns of Ugandan women and men.

Dr. Sharon Mijares listens to the concerns of Ugandan women and men.

The threads that Mijares sees running through her own life are the importance of educating girls and women and supporting women in their efforts to work. She’s also keenly aware of the pressures men face as well and stresses the need for equality.

“I have always defended the feminists of the ’70s because they were starting something,” said Mijares, adding that too many people bought into the accusation that the feminists of that generation were just “angry women.”

But she also sees a danger in being too angry. Watching the women she’s met in La Paz, who she calls very brave (they’ve mounted a campaign to stop violence against women that includes gigantic and graphic signs), she worries that their approach may be too much for rural and indigenous women.

“A lot of my work is about healing gender issues,” she said, adding that it’s important to maintain harmony and empower men (those in Uganda seemed particularly down, she said) so they don’t get left behind as this will only further inequality.

Mijares has found over the years that it’s important to share her own background with those she meets. “Here I am from the U.S., so people just take it for granted that we just live in a completely different world. But I was a single mother, a victim of domestic violence in my younger years, so they need to know that I understand,” she said. The women she meets also want to tell the stories of their hardships so she spends much of her time listening, but she also wants to implant hope.

She finds that students, whether in an online course or sitting in a Ugandan village, can be quite similar. “Some clearly have a purpose. Some just seem to be there without knowing why,” she said. She urged the students she met in another village in Uganda to find a purpose, to have a reason to want to be educated. That’s something she’s also imparted to her Brandman students.

Mijares began teaching on Brandman’s San Diego campus more than 15 years ago. Her quick and novel use of Blackboard in the classroom caught the attention of Ruth Black, the former dean of online learning, who thought Mijares would be particularly good teaching exclusively online.

“I miss not being able to joke with students like you can sometimes in the classroom, but I think the work itself stays more focused,” she said. She appreciates the freedom teaching online gives and also sees that same flexibility as a tremendous bonus for students.

“Some of these students amaze me. I really admire them for holding down jobs and meeting family responsibilities. I can see the hours for when they’re posting,” she said. Many are already following her advice: “Don’t let age get in the way. You do what you care about.”

In talking with Mijares, it’s clear from the way the conversation circles back to Uganda, that she is doing what she cares about: connecting women, creating change.

Her final event in Uganda was to meet with Despina Namwembe in her office in Kampala. Namwembe had contributed to “A Force Such as the World Has Never Known: Women Creating Change,” but the two had never met in person. They talked about bringing some of the book’s contributors together for a presentation at the 2015 Parliament of World Religions, taking place this year in Salt Lake City.

And she asked Namwembe to follow up with the rural women who had danced their appreciation.

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