Doctoral study unveils spirituality in social work

Tuesday 4 June 2024

Dr Hairunnisa Muhammed Shafi fulfilled her grandfather’s dream for her when she crossed the stage at Auckland graduation recently to receive her doctorate.

Dr Hairunnisa Muhammed Shafi.

Having grown up in Kerala, India and studying in local language schools, Dr Hairunnisa Muhammed Shafi feels a great sense of pride for having graduated with her PhD in an English-speaking country halfway across the world.

The 34-year-old began her doctoral journey with Te Kunenga ki Pūrehuroa Massey University in 2018, after completing her Master of Social Work at Mahatma Ghandi University in India and then working as a social worker from 2011 to 2016.

For her thesis, Dr Shafi explored the influence and understanding of spirituality amongst social work teachers, practitioners and the New Zealand public, and how spirituality can be utilised in social work education and practice.

“The significance of spirituality in the lives of Māori and the Social Workers Registration Board’s requirement that social work practitioners demonstrate respect and knowledge of diverse people’s beliefs, motivated me to study spirituality.”

Dr Shafi’s findings indicate teachers, practitioners and members of the public all experience spirituality differently.

“Social work teachers’ and practitioners’ spiritual experiences included the awareness of having a personal relationship with God, nature, social work and family, and those experiences shaped their teaching and practice. When compared to them, public participants held numerous beliefs about what and to whom they are connected in order to experience spirituality in their lives.

“For example, being creative, holding aspirations and experiencing interconnectedness between animals, plants and friends were powerful spiritual experiences for the public participants.”

She says understanding the public’s diverse spiritual experiences and their impact on wellbeing, as well as perceptions of the role of spirituality in social work practice, has the potential to guide social workers in integrating spirituality-based interventions.

Dr Shafi’s research led to the development of a conceptual framework to help teachers and practitioners integrate spirituality into teaching and practice in a non-imposing and client-centred manner.

It was a fitting topic of research for Dr Shafi, as she says she felt a spiritual connection when she met her supervisor, Associate Professor Ksenija Napan.

“I felt a spiritual connection between us, and that belongingness and love strengthened my confidence and courage to study a PhD at Massey. Associate Professor Heather Kempton was my co-supervisor and she became another source of motivation and energy for me. My relationships with them made my experience memorable.”

The COVID-19 pandemic and a flood event back home in India were two causes of stress for Dr Shafi during her research, but she says she felt well supported by her supervisors. She was also supported by her husband and parents, who looked after her young daughter while she was completing her PhD.

“I feel great pride in graduating from Massey University because of the incredible support I have received and honestly, my first world-class learning experience. I am excited to explore new opportunities for myself in my teaching and research role within academia.”

Dr Shafi is currently working as a social work lecturer at Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology in Rotorua.

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