Jo-Ann Johnston


College graduates are routinely advised that their lives will be more productive and gratifying if they continue pursuing learning as they proceed through life. Brittany (Brasseur) Czekaj ’13 not only agreed, but she also helped create a pathway for new professional and personal development programming in her home state of Vermont.

After working in the for-profit sector for a few years after graduation, Czekaj joined the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington, and eventually became a development and planned giving officer, a fundraising position for the diocese. Soon after she was hired, Czekaj came up with a new programming idea to help fill a gap in the diocese’s services, Vermont Catholic Professionals. The group would serve Catholics—and others with shared values—from the business and professional sectors. Its mission is “to encourage intellectual discussions, to foster professional and faith-based relationships and to inspire service and charity to the community in Vermont.”

Since late 2018, it has hosted networking events featuring regionally prominent individuals, such as a college president, the head of the leading statewide business group, a nonprofit executive in youth services, medical leaders, and others. Before COVID-19 emerged, the sessions were scheduled on weekdays starting at 8 a.m. so that participants could get to work afterward, but some people would always linger for conversation beyond 9:30 a.m.

Czekaj answered some questions about how the venture began and how it is progressing.

Q: How did you get the idea?

A: Vermont Catholic Professionals (VCP) started as an idea in early 2018, just six months after I started working for the Diocese of Burlington. During a monthly meeting with my manager, Ellen Kane, I discussed how I felt that there were ministries for youth, young adults, college students, and families; however, it seemed like those who are career-driven Catholics were not being engaged.

I told my manager that while attending Saint Leo, the College of Business would have nights where students could network with alumni who represented various businesses and industries. I loved the fact that we could join our Catholic faith, shared values, and professional focus, and feel that there is no substitute for this type of relationship cultivation.

Q: What did you need to do to get it going?

A: Firstly, I presented the idea to Bishop Christopher J. Coyne to be sure that he approved as it is a group through the Diocese of Burlington. Secondly, I formed a committee of various individuals in order to come up with a sound description and mission of the group and get ideas for promotion, logos, invitations, logistics, etc. We were lucky to start our group based on the generosity of the diocese so that we could host events in a proper space. We are grateful that after the first event, there was a great response of members and organizations that were eager to sponsor our group. Thanks to their generosity, we were able to host the in-person networking events and not pull from diocesan funds.

Q: How has the reception been, especially in a rural state with the population dispersed among mostly a few small cities and small towns? Were people hungry for something like this?

A: This group has been extremely well-received. Our initial goal was around 25 people, as we thought that would be successful due to the limited percentage of Catholics in our state. We ended up having 60 people from throughout the state in attendance at our first in-person networking breakfast and at each quarterly event following. There was a great desire for people to have a group like this, of like-minded individuals who share a passion for both their faith and career.

Q: COVID-19 threw in a big complication, and you adapted—how?

A: We plan all of our events a year at a time, so in January 2020 we had all of our in-person networking breakfasts planned. When COVID-19 hit, we adapted and overcame by transitioning to a virtual platform and hosting webinars, with a slightly different format. The silver lining of this change has been that people throughout the entire United States have been able to attend (including fellow Saint Leo University alumni).

Q: What have been some of the fruits of this journey?

A: Many great relationships have been formed: Several members have commented how they did not know that a certain person was within their industry, or didn’t realize that they were Catholic. Several job opportunities have arisen as a result of certain speakers or from the networking that has gone on at the beginning and end of the events. Due to our wide range of speakers, many have expressed how inspired they have been by the stories of the individuals, and that they are encouraged and motivated to persevere in faith and excel in their career.

While Spirit Magazine was in production, Brittany Czekaj accepted a position with a national Catholic organization, Leadership Roundtable, and will carry her commitment to professional development and lifelong learning into her new position. Vermont Catholic Professionals is continuing, with information available at

As our world changes, so do the needs of the workforce. During the next 10 years, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that we will see heightened demand for skilled professionals in health care, technology, and data science, among other sectors.

To help support the workforce of the future, Saint Leo University has invested in four new degree programs that will support future workforce needs and lead to high job placements for students. “Curriculum really doesn’t stand still; it can’t,” explained Dr. Mary Spoto, vice president of Academic Affairs. “We are constantly finding ways to create new programs and to strengthen existing programs to provide the best educational experience for the future for our students.”

Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

College: The College of Health Professions
Where: University Campus
When: Fall 2021 (must be accepted as pre-nursing student for two introductory years)

What Students Will Learn: Students will receive the best in classroom education and clinical experience, preparing them to take the national licensing exam for registered nurses. Graduates will be prepared to move straight into nursing positions at hospitals, clinics, community organizations, long-term care facilities, businesses, and other settings.

Why It Matters: Population trends and stressors, including the coronavirus pandemic, have created an ongoing, critical need for additional nurses, especially in the Southeast and Florida. Saint Leo-prepared nurses will not only help fill the labor demand, they will bring to the field an orientation toward treating the whole patient, advancing the well-being of the patient’s community, and working collaboratively with clinical colleagues. This philosophy is known as the Culture of Health framework and is embedded in all health professions programs.

Bachelor of Science in Respiratory Therapy (BSRT)

College: The College of Health Professions
Where: Online
When: Spring Semester 2022

What Students Will Learn: Students who enroll will be professionals who already have an associate degree and are employed as respiratory therapists who assist patients whose ability to breathe is compromised. These professionals already know how to attend to patients’ breathing needs, operate the requisite medical equipment, and function as part of a health care team. The online, upper-level coursework will provide additional specialized knowledge and prepare students to become team leaders or managers in the field.

Why It Matters: The role of respiratory therapists became more visible during the first wave of COVID-19 hospitalizations, but other conditions prevalent among middle-aged and older patients also require respiratory therapy care. Consequently, demand in the field is increasing, including demand for respiratory therapists with bachelor’s degrees. This program is online so that these professionals can continue working while earning their bachelor’s degrees.

Bachelor of Science in Robotics & Artificial Intelligence (BS)

School: The School of Computing, Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, and Data Science
Where: University Campus
When: Fall 2022

What Students Will Learn: Robotics is an interdisciplinary field that combines computer science, computer hardware, mathematics, electrical engineering, software engineering, and mechanical engineering. Students earning this degree will gain firm, theoretical knowledge of the essentials of computer science, robotics, and artificial intelligence, plus the skills required to design, implement, and evaluate robotics technology and systems that will solve real-
life problems.

Why This Matters: Robotics is a fast-growing field with applications in space exploration, health care, automation, manufacturing, security, and other scientific and business fields. The worldwide market for robotics and the related need for skilled robotics engineers and designers will continue growing. Because of projected job growth in Florida and neighboring states, the Florida State Legislature granted Saint Leo $1 million in 2021 to launch this program.

Bachelor of Arts in Veteran Studies (BA)

College: The College of Arts and Sciences
Where: University Campus, Online Coming Soon
When: Fall 2021 Semester

What Students Will Learn: Students, who are veterans and non-veterans, will be immersed into courses in history, art, policy, psychology, ethics, and other fields to learn how people from various generations, ethnicities, genders, and nations have been influenced by their service in the military and the transition back to civilian life. Students will be able to pair this with other majors or minors if they choose and then move into careers in business, government administration, policy, teaching, or other areas where their understanding is vital. A minor is also an option.

Why This Matters: This is a new field in which other colleges or universities offer only a certificate or minor. Saint Leo is the first in the country to offer a bachelor’s degree in the field, which demonstrates both the faculty’s vision in seeing how our society will be improved by the contributions of veteran studies graduates and the overall commitment of the university to the military and military-connected population.

A new center launched by Saint Leo University is helping learners of all backgrounds.

Saint Leo opened the Center for Alternative Pathway Programs during the summer in a digital space housed on the university website. The center aspires to be an educational provider of choice, focused on addressing the continuing education needs of the current workforce. While the center offers programs unlike those found in a traditional university experience, it was started in the same spirit that motivated the founders of the university more than a century ago: to fulfill the needs of prospective learners.

What makes the center distinct is its speed and flexibility. It operates apart from the academic colleges that each create degree programs that require longer periods of committed study, and it pivots more easily to meet marketplace needs. The center also helps individuals meet challenges that will arise at certain points in their careers.

People who have completed some level of formal education or workplace training still find, on a regular basis, that they need to learn new techniques, business processes, or programs, or revisit material, explained Dr. Cindy Lee, director of the Center for Alternative Pathway Programs. This happens because applied practices and knowledge for work environments now become outdated quickly, in as little as four years, Lee said. Additionally, disruptions in the economy can force people to look for new work requiring new skill sets, as the recession created by the novel coronavirus has done.  

“Naturally, we didn’t expect the pandemic and resulting economic damage when we started the center,” Lee said. “But we hope any alumni who find they could use new skills will turn to our programs to see if we might meet their needs.”

The Age of Upskilling

Those looking for new work, those trying to advance in their careers, and adults who are simply interested in new areas of knowledge are all candidates who should consider “upskilling” through the Center for Alternative Pathway Programs, according to Lee.

The array of course offerings available through the center is already broad. Instruction in so-called soft skills—such as effective writing, public speaking, or overall workplace communications skills—is available because so many business owners and executives complain that those capabilities are often lacking in employees and potential new hires. 

Hard skills are offered as well, such as statistical process control and various computer programs and robotics. Data analytics and data visualization are among the more analytically-oriented skills that businesses want more employees to possess, Lee added.

Both hard and soft skills are desired in industry sectors across the contemporary economy. As prospective learners look through the center’s website, they will see next to the course information on the amount of time in hours or weeks courses are expected to take. The cost of each course is also clearly visible. Some courses offer certificates upon completion. Pricing is set on a course-by-course basis.

Micro-credentials are Another Alternative Path

An area of special interest to some learners will be the tier of center courses developed for those with some prior career experience or developed aptitude. These courses are more personalized to career fields, and the center awards micro-credentials to those who complete them.  

Some of the micro-credentials courses that fit this category are cognitive behavioral therapy skills for counselors; basic security management for law enforcement and military personnel who want to move into the private sector; and a suite of artificial intelligence (AI) training courses. A micro-credential offering is being developed for educators who want to become more adept at teaching reading in K-12 settings, and that draws upon the expertise of Saint Leo’s Graduate Education Department faculty.

When learners have completed their micro-credential, they are eligible to receive a digital “badge” from the university. Badges validate to employers and other interested parties the learners’ accomplishments. Since digital badges can be incorporated into online résumés and social media platforms, such as LinkedIn profiles, they can help the badge-earners set themselves apart in the workforce.

Helping Professionals Learn Additional Skills

Brittany Hahn ’15 completed her Master of Social Work degree with Saint Leo University recently, yet still was happy to find the Center for Alternative Pathway Programs was up and running. Hahn completed a micro-credential course on a therapy technique—cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) —that social workers and other types of counselors employ. CBT is described in professional literature as a form of talk therapy that helps a client change harmful thinking patterns and bad habits over time, and gradually become able to do so independently, without a therapist being present. Hahn respected the potential benefits and was eager to receive formal training in the approach.

“CBT is a well-established, evidenced-based therapy and considered a best practice for many disorders,” Hahn explained. So if she could find good training, she was confident she would become even more proficient as a social worker in a specialized hospital in suburban Tampa.

The six-week course required 90-minute, weekly online class meetings, and the content met her expectations. “I benefited from the small class size and felt like I received personalized instruction,” she said. Upon completion, she said she was “instantly able to implement the skills I learned from the course.”

Similarly, Jennifer Tillery said she found immediate benefit from the micro-credential she earned, though hers is from a beginning-level course in grantsmanship. She works in family support services for the Head Start agency in her area of north Florida, a position that entails working with other collaborative agencies that are often looking for new sources of funding. Coincidentally, Tillery has always loved to write and thought she could expand her skill set by learning grant writing, but specifically did not want to have to enroll in a degree program.

The five-week grantsmanship micro-credential, with weekly classes three hours long, fit the bill. Tillery said the instructor was very skilled at breaking down each concept so that the students attain a thorough understanding of the material, and also was available outside course hours. Tillery said she is motivated to take continuing grantsmanship courses if the center offers them. “I actually have three agencies that would like me to help get the process started of looking for grants,” she said.

Employers and Associations Can Ask for Customized Solutions

Even though new courses are under development, Lee said the center is looking for more ideas. She hopes alumni will recommend subject areas the center should be exploring.

The center will also deliver course instruction to particular workplaces or organizations, Lee noted, whether online or in-person, as conditions permit. In fact, the Center for Alternative Pathway Programs can create customized courses, Lee said, so that workplaces or work-related groups can be assured that the material presented meets the clients’ needs.

The center has already responded to changing, emergent conditions. Earlier this year, when people began to shelter in place as COVID-19 overtook the economy, University President Jeffrey Senese asked faculty to create some free, online enrichment courses to provide people with diversion and entertainment. A new spot was created on the center website for the mini-catalog of free courses, and people who were interested in offerings such as backyard birding or budget baking signed up using the center’s online registration capabilities.

None of that was in the initial plan for the center, but it does serve as proof of the center’s adaptability, said Dr. Mary Spoto, vice president of Academic Affairs. The center falls under her areas of responsibility.

The center also serves as an example of another theme that Saint Leo emphasizes: Learning should not stop after graduates earn their degrees, Spoto said.

“In the future, the Center for Alternative Pathway Programs will represent a much larger part of the institution,” she predicted. “We will have short-term instruction that can be very quick in responding to market needs and can be delivered on a one-course basis, or through short-term but sequential courses. Our new offerings for K-12 educators who want reading instruction is one example, and our credentials on cognitive behavior therapy for counselors is another. Our longer-term, academic degree programs will continue, of course, with the result that Saint Leo will be an institution that offers multiple ‘doors’ for people to enter and find the educational solution that best fits. We have always said that we want our students to be lifelong learners, and with a quickly evolving workforce of today, the need is greater than ever. Through the center, we are helping more people become true lifelong learners.”

For More Information

The Center for Alternative Pathway Programs is actively enrolling students. Saint Leo University alumni may also take advantage of a special 10 percent discount. To learn more, email or visit

Highlights on recent Saint Leo University faculty accomplishments and contributions in teaching and learning.

Dr. Jacob Aguilar, a mathematician and data scientist, and several co-researchers from a cross-disciplinary team, released their manuscript about an important and little-understood aspect of virus that causes COVID-19. The team used new modeling techniques to estimate the number of people who might become infected by someone already carrying the virus, but not yet showing any symptoms. This provides insight into how contagious the illness is, and that knowledge, in turn, helps regional officials make public-health decisions. Aguilar and his fellow researchers came to the conclusion that an asymptomatic carrier could infect an average of six other people or more, which is far more than a typical strain of the flu. Aguilar and his researchers released a manuscript describing their work on a respected scientific platform created for quick dissemination of research findings.

Aguilar’s contribution to the coronavirus study was based on work he and a collaborator had only completed recently in estimating the potential for people infected with malaria—but with no symptoms—to spread the deadly illness. In other words, Aguilar was taking a modeling approach he had developed for the study of one horrible, persistent ailment, and successfully incorporating that into a new team project focused on the new coronavirus. An account of the study about malaria was released in 2020 in a peer-reviewed publication. Aguilar joined the faculty at the start of the 2019-2020 academic year as assistant professor of mathematics.

Dr. Melinda (Lin) Carver, an associate professor in the Graduate Education Department, co-wrote a ​book with colleague and adjunct instructor Lauren Pantoja, Reading Basics for All Teachers: Supporting All Learners. It was published in April 2020 by Rowman and Littlefield and provides K-12 teachers from all subject areas with ways to ​enhance their students’ reading ​and writing development. Carver and Pantoja wrote an earlier edition on this topic that was published in 2015. In the second edition, they have added new content and strategies for teachers to explore.

Renee Gould, assistant professor at the Daniel A. Cannon Memorial Library, was the co-author with two former Saint Leo colleagues of a case study about working with library-database products to meet the real-world needs of visually impaired patrons. Gould and recently retired library colleague Jacalyn Bryan, associate professor, along with alumna Brittany Leigh ’12, who until recently worked with the Office of Accessibility Services, described their work in the spring issue of the journal, Florida Libraries. Libraries with printed and electronic holdings rely on software from third-party vendors for day-to-day needs. Such resources and tools provide students and staff the means to retrieve and read books, journals, newspapers, and magazine articles. As it turns out, while many of these products may be legally compliant with regulations meant to ensure access for the visually impaired, they can still be hard to navigate and use successfully. The team described approaches adopted to remedy the situation at Saint Leo, possible steps for future exploration, and possible starting points for other libraries.  

Poet and faculty member Gianna Russo was named the City of Tampa’s first Wordsmith and will steer new projects meant to encourage creativity and expression, such as holding writing workshops in city neighborhoods. She recently edited a collection of poems inspired by regionally well-known photographs from Tampa and other spots in Florida produced by Tampa’s leading commercial photographic firm from 1917 to early 1960, the Burgert Brothers Inc. Chasing Light includes many images that capture 20th-century central Florida, from its cigar trade, to its diverse communities, agriculture, and natural surroundings. Russo contributed the forward and a poem, in addition to serving as editor. Other Saint Leo faculty and academic administrators with contributions in Chasing Light are part-time English instructor Amanda Forrester; English instructor Marissa McLargin (published as Marissa Glover); and professor and outreach librarian Carol Ann Moon. There are 48 contributors in all. The volume was published in February as a large-format paperback by the independent YellowJacket Press in collaboration with the Tampa-Hillsborough County Library and library supporters. Russo is an assistant professor of English and creative writing.

Dr. Zachary Smith, assistant professor of economics and finance, and a co-author, had a macroeconomic study published in April in the Pacific Economic Review. Their study examined the interplay between fintech—financial technologies including access to cellular phone and Internet applications and cryptocurrencies—and the policies normally employed by governments’ central banks to raise or lower interest rates, control inflation, and support overall economic growth. Their research study was based on 18 years of data from 30 nations with advanced economies (including the United States). In general, when people have access to mobile and internet technology, more money circulates throughout the economy. But the presence of cryptocurrencies—as they are substitutes from the currencies issued by governments—reduces the demand for money to spread through the economies. As the use of cryptocurrencies widens then, the authors suggested, central banks will have to consider updating their traditional policies to account for cryptocurrency-based transactions. Otherwise, the policies will become outdated and less effective in keeping economies running smoothly, Smith and his co-author said.

Professor Jack McTague retires from Saint Leo University after 44 years of teaching.

Scores of alumni who studied at University Campus recognize Professor Jack McTague as the cheerful fellow who plays bass with other faculty rock enthusiasts in their band, Time Warp. Some know him as a loyal fan of the Lions men basketball team, while theater enthusiasts may think of him as a patron of campus musicals, and sometimes even a cast member.

Jack McTague throughout the years

Beyond those classic McTague vignettes, though, is a more substantive story. McTague is the history professor who has actually become part of Saint Leo history through 44 years of service to students and camaraderie with colleagues. This spring marked McTague’s final semester of teaching undergraduates before retirement.

This accomplishment has alumni and colleagues pausing in appreciation for the effect McTague has had. On one level, people have been remarking on McTague’s steadfast show of community through attendance at events outside the classroom, in support of campus lectures and programming, or at students’ athletic contests and artistic efforts.

Then there is the measure of success a teacher can have in helping students to mature intellectually. McTague has always stressed to students the importance of thinking about context when confronting big questions. Much of the time, he means they need to know or learn enough to be informed citizens.

“Should there be any restrictions on freedom of speech?” McTague asked a class of eight seniors one day in February. The young citizens in the spring History of Ideas course had just read some texts that were in philosophical agreement with the American Bill of Rights. Now McTague was asking them to articulate their own beliefs about freedoms in light of hate speech, social media, the Global War on Terrorism, and other complexities of contemporary times. And then McTague asked them another question, and another.

Emily Mincey ’16 recalls that course, one of her favorites among the many she, a history major, took with McTague. His way of posing discussion questions “gave us the space to learn,” she said. In fact, she knew any course she took with him “was going to be a productive and enjoyable learning experience.”

Because McTague has always been primarily assigned to teach history from beyond the United States, he has likely had an even greater effect in helping students understand lessons from abroad. “The world is so much more connected now,” McTague said. “We certainly need to learn a lot more about China, we need to know more about the Mideast. Being in Florida, we need to know about Latin America.”

Some military-affiliated students come to class already aware of this, owing to previous deployments abroad or potential deployments in their futures, he said. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, he recalled, a sizable enrollment of military students impressed the faculty and classmates. “They were all very serious, hard-working students. In any class they were in, they raised the level,” McTague said.

In more recent years, the pattern has reappeared. Criminal justice majors who are concentrating on homeland security studies consistently enroll in an upper-level course he teaches on the Mideast, he added. “A lot more of our students are going to be traveling and serving in that part of the world.”

The subject matter does not come easily though. American students have told McTague that courses on the histories of other nations are more challenging than the U.S. history courses. “I know it’s tough,” he responds. “You’ve never heard of these names before now, and you’ve never heard of these events.”

In truth, he literally does know what they are going through in learning about regions that are new to them. The scholar has been called upon to expand his own base of knowledge dramatically from his early teaching days.

When the young John J. McTague Jr. first came to Saint Leo from the State University of Buffalo for an interview in 1976, he had an advantage in that his doctoral research and dissertation examined Britain, the United States, and Palestine, and that he had also studied Japan. Other young academics were much more specialized in their doctoral pursuits. Saint Leo had only one opening for one historian to teach history from beyond the United States (the one other historian on staff covered U.S. history). So McTague was the most qualified academically, and he knew from his own undergraduate college days that he could enjoy a small, Catholic campus atmosphere.

He has had to continue learning though, and researching and writing. In 1983, he published a book, British Policy in Palestine 1917-1922, which drew from the same topic he researched for his dissertation topic. Numerous articles and conference presentations have followed in the decades since, primarily dealing with Mideast history and politics. He also has enjoyed writing book reviews for a variety of professional journals and newspapers.

Traveling, too, has been an important learning mode. When McTague was first offered the Saint Leo job, he recalled, he had been to Europe twice and to Israel.

But as time went on, McTague and colleagues agreed the Saint Leo world history curriculum should be expanded. And McTague always felt a history professor should have a first-person acquaintance with the culture of countries in his or her teaching areas. Saint Leo has been supportive, he said, by making professional development money available that helped him finance summer educational travel.

“My two trips to China have been very useful for my classes in Far Eastern History and trips to Israel, Egypt, and Jordan have been helpful in my Middle Eastern History classes.” His trips to 10 countries in Latin America, South America, and the Caribbean have helped inform classes on that region, as well. “I’ve now been to 40 countries,” he said.

In the future, he would like to travel more, with another trip to Israel among his planned destinations. And then he may be back to teach a course from time to time because he’s also the resident expert on Latin American history.

McTague’s Movies

Jack McTague is happy to recommend movies that have a basis in historical events. Here are some of his suggestions, organized by regions of the world.

Latin America
The Mission, Like Water for Chocolate, Frida, Roma

Middle East
Lawrence of Arabia, Argo, The Kingdom

Far East
The Last Emperor, Gandhi, Seven Years in Tibet, The Last Samurai


The university extends its best wishes also to these faculty, who decided to retire this academic year.

  • Francis Githieya, assistant professor of philosophy, theology, and religion, Atlanta
  • Susan Foster, professor of sport business
  • Marguerite McInnis, associate professor of social work
  • David Persky, professor of criminal justice
  • Thomas Ricard, assistant professor of physics and physical sciences
  • Joanne Roberts, associate professor of education
  • Leonard Territo, distinguished professor (graduate studies) of criminal justice

Center photo by Cheryl Hemphill. Other images courtesy of Time Warp, and from Saint Leo files

Alumnus finds value and application in a popular Saint Leo University course on terrorism in Israel.

Charlie Bird ’05 ’11 ’14 followed a time-honored path over the course of three decades to emerge as the head of law enforcement  in his Central Florida hometown. He started as an outdoorsy, active young man who was introduced to the career through a friend who was a police dispatcher, and found the work suited him. He earned his degrees near home and advanced through the ranks. 

Now, as the director of public safety for the same small city, Winter Haven, FL (population: 43,000), Bird is a proponent of providing police and other emergency professionals with an international educational perspective. Even in smaller-population cities such as his, the threats to public safety and well-being are real, he said. Parkland, the Florida city victimized by the infamous Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre, estimates its current population at 32,000, he pointed out.

Through his experiences at Saint Leo, Bird came to the conclusion that approaches to keeping the public safe now have to be researched worldwide, and not just within our country’s framework.

Bird earned an associate degree from Saint Leo in 2005 and later earned his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from the university, studying part time, while working and raising a family. Then he followed that degree with a master’s in criminal justice with a concentration in critical incident management.

That was all sound training, he says, but what made him a more forward-leaning leader was his participation in an eight-day group trip to Israel. The tour is a learning experience that is organized periodically by Saint Leo’s departments of public safety administration and criminal justice in partnership with a respected security training company for law and safety students and professionals. The group learned about Israel’s approach to counterterrorism through its public infrastructure, various protective agencies, and planning capabilities.

“It was one of the best things I ever did,” Bird said of his 2014 experience. While many fellow travelers on the trip were from large-city police forces, Bird encountered many lessons that he applies in directing safety operations for Winter Haven, and that he thinks could work for other smaller municipalities.

New perspectives

What meant the most to Bird was the emphasis placed on the prevention of attacks and cooperative measures, along with strong tactical response capabilities. For instance, he realized in Israel, police and firefighters may coordinate and act immediately at a mass casualty, rather than in a sequence with police first, then firefighters. “You’re looking at it from a different perspective,” he said.

Charlie Bird, left, with Saint Leo faculty member Dr. Robert Sullivan on a tour during a study trip in May 2014 to Israel.

The Israeli thinking about keeping schools safe from intruders and active shooters also intrigued Bird. “Their security layers for schools are not just on campus,” he said. “They are outside that. They patrol the perimeters outside the school property.” His department could examine and adjust patrol routes, he immediately realized.

When he returned to Florida, the ideas stayed, and advancement opportunities followed. Bird became Winter Haven’s police chief early in 2015 after the previous chief, a mentor, left for another position in the region. After another few years, the city’s fire chief retired.

The local city manager in 2018 proposed a new organization bringing the fire and police departments, along with code enforcement, under one city department overseen by Bird. Bird agreed and was appointed the director of public safety, a new position. He now oversees 91 police employees and a force of 71 firefighters and emergency medical personnel.

One of Bird’s current initiatives involves taking police, fire, and code enforcement officers on team walks through neighborhoods where some of the homes and yards are out of code compliance or are about to be because of overgrown grass, debris, or other deficits. Team members walk and knock on doors to talk to residents, Bird said, taking an informative approach first, and asking what the public servants can do to help the residents bring the property into code compliance.

Community members who help agency personnel may come along, too, Bird said, and sometimes identify easy solutions. Firefighters look for features of buildings that might be fire hazards and add to their knowledge of the properties under their protective watch.

Cross-functional teams

The police presence also reassures residents the department is serious about keeping the area safe from personal and property crime and fighting drug dealing. This cooperative venture is also a data-driven exercise that will track results, including numbers of code citations and calls to police for help, Bird said.

He has his eye on the longer term, too. Now that some safety department managers have been working more holistically for more than a year, he would like to send six of them on the next Israel trip that Saint Leo is able to arrange. (A May 2020 date has been rescheduled for November 2020 in hopes of better travel conditions domestically and internationally, in light of the coronavirus outbreak.)

Bird wants the group to be able to see for themselves the kinds of things he did and develop more ideas for improving the safety and well-being of the residents of Winter Haven. An anonymous foundation board has come forward to fund most of this training so that taxpayers will not have to foot any costs. The donating board—unknown even to Bird—considers the donation a way to help the 53-year-old public safety director have strong successors in place when he eventually retires. Bird said he is “extremely appreciative.” The foundation’s board is “making a heck of an investment into the future of this department and into the future of this community.”

For More Information

If you are interested in learning more about the course and trip, please contact Dr. Robert Sullivan, faculty member with Saint Leo University’s Department of Public Safety Administration and Department of Criminal Justice, at

Photos courtesy of Charlie Bird

Highlights on recent Saint Leo University faculty accomplishments and contributions in teaching and learning.

Dr. Karen Hannel of the College of Arts and Sciences and her husband, Dr. Eric Hannel, an adjunct instructor with Saint LeoHistorical research by Dr. Karen Hannel of the College of Arts and Sciences and her husband, Dr. Eric Hannel, an adjunct instructor with Saint Leo, prompted the state of Florida to approve the placement of an official marker to note that a vibrant township once existed north of University Campus in the 1800s. The town of Chipco was a trading post established by white settlers and was named for a Seminole chief who actually lived nearby, but separately, with some members of his tribe for a time after the mid-1850s. The white town grew to have a nearby railway link, lumber-planing mill, grist mill, school, and post office, along with farms. The Pasco County (FL) town reached the peak of its commercial prominence in the 1880s, but disappeared by 1909 after a series of economic reversals. Chief Chipco and his band had long since moved to a different locale in mid-Florida, and the chief died in 1881 at more than 100 years of age, according to a newspaper account. The Hannels continue to research this settlement, as its trajectory illustrates so much about the racial interactions, intermittent wars, and economic developments of 19th-century Florida.

Dr. Iain Duffy, a microbiologist and member of the science faculty at University Campus, is president of the Florida Academy of Sciences and is now in the second year of a two-year term. The academy is comprised of scholars from the life sciences, physical sciences, social sciences, computer and mathematical sciences, and science teaching, and publishes a quarterly journal.

Dr. Leon Mohan and Dr. Dene WilliamsonDr. Leon Mohan and Dr. Deneˊ Williamson of the Tapia College of Business were published in late 2019 in the International Journal of Sport, Exercise and Physical Education with their article “Youth Sport Participation as a Result of Social Identity Theory.” The article describes survey research conducted in a South Florida city with youths involved with sports through various community organizations. In particular, the researchers zeroed in on children ages 9 to 13, who were primarily African American and Hispanic, to see what role social factors played in getting and keeping the youths involved in sports. The short-term objective was to help associations find influences that can be maintained to get and keep children physically active. Sports that parents and guardians were familiar with, sports played by famous athletes, and sports played by friends and peers were motivating influences. The business professors included work by undergraduate student John-Paul West in their research and publication.

Dr. Matthew TapieDr. Matthew Tapie, theology faculty member and director of the Saint Leo University Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies, was invited in February by Spring Hill College in Alabama to deliver a talk on a particularly difficult point in Catholic and Jewish relations. Since 2018, Tapie has been speaking in academic settings and published in academic theological journals on the new controversy about the forced religious conversion of a young boy named Edgardo Mortaro in Bologna, Italy, in 1858. The child was being raised by a Jewish family, in accordance with their own faith, when the Catholic Church learned the boy secretly had been given a Catholic baptism when he was an infant and facing illness. A maid employed by the family performed the baptism without permission from or the knowledge of the baby’s parents. The woman presumably was leaning on her own Catholic teaching as motivation and feared for the soul of the baby if he did not recover. The boy was forcibly removed from his home on the order of Pope Pius IX when the Church eventually learned of this, and despite an international scandal, the church never backed down and instead raised the child.

The case was known chiefly by academics in recent history, but is the subject of the film The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortaro, which was made and directed by Steven Spielberg, but not widely released.

Around the time of the film’s completion, a theologian wrote an academic article that caused hurt feelings and astonishment anew among Catholics and Jews by defending Pope Pius IX and aspects of church law. Tapie’s recent and continuing work on this helps academics and others to become informed about the facts of the 162-year-old case and Catholic reaction today.

Dr. Moneque Walker-PickettDr. Moneque Walker-Pickett, professor and associate chair of the undergraduate criminal justice program, was selected for a prestigious fellowship program in higher education. She is one of only 38 professionals to be included in the 2020-2021 American Council on Education Fellows Program. The objective of the program is to provide learning opportunities that condense years of practical higher education experience into a curriculum of a single year. Fellows receive strategic planning training, make numerous visits to other campuses, and take part in interactive sessions. Upon completion of the program, fellows return to their own campuses better equipped to address evolving challenges in higher education. Walker-Pickett joins a diverse fellowship class comprised of individuals from Georgetown University, Purdue University, the U.S. Air Force Academy, among other institutions. In addition to holding a doctorate in sociology, Walker-Pickett holds a law degree and worked previously as an attorney. She became a full-time member of the Saint Leo University faculty at University Campus in August 2012.

The early nineties were a great time for Jeannine Vlasak Joy. Saint Leo College awarded a full academic-and-athletic-scholarship package to the young woman from St. Augustine, FL. That support enabled the 6-foot-tall athlete to continue playing volleyball and basketball competitively, while also providing her with the education she needed to become an English teacher, her career goal at the time. As an added bonus, she set some collegiate records that she enjoys reminiscing about today.

In the history of women’s basketball at Saint Leo, the name Vlasak is paired with the second all-time high in career blocks at 132—she was the all-time leader when she graduated in 1994. In volleyball, the alumna ranks second in all-time solo blocks with 124.

Today, Jeannine Joy seems to be in another career peak featuring some impressive statistics, even though her sphere of influence has shifted from college sports to community-based philanthropy. Since becoming president in mid-June at the United Way of her home area in southwest Florida, Joy has been the public face of a highly effective agency that has been the focus of her career.

The community-based United Way of Lee, Hendry, Glades, and Okeechobee counties raises money within its region and distributes it, in accordance with local wishes. Member agencies receive the money and spend it in ways meant to improve the quality of life for residents. That could mean an affordably priced recreation facility for all ages, specialty services for children, or care for the aged, or veterans, among other services.

In all, the United Way contributed to the lives of 350,000 people in those counties last year; records show it invested more than $10.2 million in services. Further, the regional United Way has been highly rated by Charity Navigator, which provides advisory information to the donating public. Charity Navigator gave the local United Way four out of a possible four stars for financial health and sound management. Rarer still, Charity Navigator assigned it a perfect score (100 percent) for transparency and accountability in financial reporting. “We are very, very proud,” Joy said. 

She has been part of the team that built the regional United Way to its current level of success for two decades. Once Joy graduated from Saint Leo with academic honors, she followed through on her original plan to teach high school English. But she also became a volunteer at her area United Way. She had always been involved in fundraising functions for teams and other activities and was naturally drawn to the work of community building. 

Her enthusiasm sparked an offer to join the professional staff, and she was hooked. She was eager to tell people all about the work United Way was doing in Lee County, home to the resort community of Fort Myers. 

Her newfound career focus reminded her of lessons she had learned during the college Honors Program. Some of the readings focused on the observations of Alexis de Tocqueville, a political scientist from France who toured America observations was that Americans had a way of coming together voluntarily to pool effort and resources when situations warranted—not something he typically witnessed in Europe. When Joy was a student, the Toqueville readings struck her, frankly, as abstract.

She laughs about that opinion now because once she got involved in the United Way, she learned that Toqueville’s observations on voluntary work are regarded as essential knowledge in the American nonprofit world. And she quickly discovered that the United Way national network encourages and honors leading donors and volunteer champions by recognizing them as members of The Toqueville Society.

Joy has learned much more over the years, as her United Way expanded and she took on new roles. Now, it covers three rural counties in addition to the more suburban Lee County: Hendry, Glades, and Okeechobee. And Joy has become a veteran there with 24 years of service. “I have literally been here one half of my life,” she quipped. 

When the previous longstanding president retired during the summer, Joy was promoted to take his place.

Ever the teammate, Joy said she loves the collaborative network that her predecessor and mentor helped nurture: about 95 agencies are involved with United Way—Lee, Hendry, Glades, and Okeechobee counties. Agencies often share ideas and work together in a variety of projects to make the greatest impact possible.

Still, there is more good that can be accomplished. If Joy had her druthers, the veteran fundraiser would have the local human services sector spending more management attention and collaborative energy on “long-term fixes” to quality-of-life deficits. Among these, she includes more affordable housing, greater resources for early childhood education, and financial literacy training for young people. Joy considers such investments “building blocks for a secure future” for individuals as well as for a stronger community.

But in some years and seasons, she said, emergencies take precedence over long-term projects, such as when Hurricane Irma hit the state in 2017. Some houses were damaged and awaiting repairs for more than a year, she noted.

Still, Joy maintains a long-term view of possibilities as she and her United Way staff advocate for the betterment of the overall community. “It’s really pretty easy to get out of bed and come to work when you are going to a place where everyone is affecting people in a positive way,” she said.

Two faculty members develop a new degree program that will help enrich the future of health care.

At one point or another, virtually everyone in America is a health care consumer, but not all encounters are satisfying ones. Sometimes doctors show a poor bedside manner. On the other side of the relationship, patients may not feel able to speak up for themselves or ask questions about their worries and concerns. What if there was a way to address those situations and help make the practice of medicine more compassionate and allow patients to have well-informed allies to assist them in their times of need? 

Two faculty members from the College of Arts and Sciences are working toward making those goals realities by leading a new bachelor’s degree program in medical humanities at the university. 

Dr. Cheryl Kozina, a geneticist from the biology faculty, and Dr. Allyson Marino, from the English faculty, are excited to be launching the curriculum this academic year. The program offers students two tracks: pre-medical, and health and humanities, which is intended for students interested in careers in health-related nonprofits, policy, and other nonclinical roles. Kozina will oversee the pre-medical track, and Marino will supervise the latter.

These academic options were launched based on solid research and evidence. The number of baccalaureate-level majors, minors, concentrations, and certificates actively taught in medical humanities throughout the United States rose from 15 in the year 2000 to 85 in 2019, according to a study from Hiram College (OH) and its Center for Literature and Medicine. As technology and mechanized processes take on greater roles in dispensing health care, patients’ need for empathic human contact increases. Interestingly, the Hiram report shows that doctors who have pre-medical humanities training are more likely to consider understaffed medical practice areas, including primary care, pediatric medicine, and psychiatry as practice areas for their careers.

A committee of faculty volunteers from the College of Arts and Sciences, including Kozina, Marino, and colleagues from philosophy, theology, and humanities, began exploring this degree more than three years ago. The committee weighed additional factors to determine whether it would be worthwhile for Saint Leo to add a medical humanities curriculum. “We asked: ‘Is this feasible? Is there a need for this? Is there a hole in Florida that could be filled and could it be filled by Saint Leo?’” Kozina recalled.
In all cases, the answers were “yes.” Even though Saint Leo offers a strong biology major at University Campus that prepares future doctors, dentists, and veterinarians for professional training, there was still room for another educational option. And the committee determined an added path to a medical education would be a healthy addition to meet the persistent need for more medical professionals, including doctors, nurse practitioners, and clinically trained individuals. The pre-medical track for medical humanities majors will prepare those individuals, while some will prefer the humanities path. 

Kozina explained the pre-medical curriculum will supply the science courses needed for medical school admission while leaving room for instruction in bio ethics, medical humanities foundation courses (likely also to help with the current standardized Medical College Admission Test), and other possibilities, such as Spanish for medical practitioners. “I have seen students in the biology major who would have thrived if this program had been available,” she said of students from previous graduating classes.

She has witnessed another indication of interest at the student level, too. This happens during the semesters she teaches an elective course in cancer biology. Many families have been touched by cancer, Kozina explained, and consequently, students enrolled in the course are eager to talk and share experiences. That simply does not happen in genetics class, she has noticed. 

Marino had a parallel experience during the Spring 2019 semester, when she taught a course on literature and medicine for the first time. “All the students got personal,” she said. They got to read works, for instance, from physician-author William Carlos Williams, who is known for writing accessible poems about his working-class patients in New Jersey factory towns in the early 20th century. She is excited, too, about the possibilities of future graduates tackling problems such as disparities in health services that are dependent on race, gender, age, and economic or social class. “We need more people who can be leaders,” Marino said.

The health and humanities track takes a different curricular approach from the science-focused track. It directs majors into 18 credit hours to be chosen from courses such as psychology of aging, medical sociology, anthropology, and others to be developed, and leaves room for a minor. Marino and Kozina expect that some courses will have team teachers from differing disciplines because the subject matter is so rich: Medical history could be one example. Medical humanities students from both tracks will have opportunities to learn by completing academic projects, to take part in service-learning projects, and to seek internships. 

Eventually, the health and humanities track of the major is likely to be offered at Saint Leo education centers near hospitals and health-care hubs, Marino said. More information on the major is available from the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Interdisciplinary Studies and Experiential Learning. 

Other New Majors Offered This Fall

Saint Leo University continues to expand the degree programs at University Campus, education centers, and online. These additions were effective at the start of the academic year in August. To learn more about Saint Leo’s degree programs, visit

  • Bachelor and Master of Science in Software Engineering
  • Bachelor of Science in Data Science
  • Bachelor of Arts in Theatre
  • Online Bachelor of Arts in Elementary Education
  • Online Bachelor of Arts in Education Studies
  • Online Bachelor of Arts in Human Services 

After a lifetime of learning firsthand about the human rights violations in Tanzania, Lauren Boos enters her final year of Saint Leo’s accelerated pre-law program so she can one day fight for those who cannot fight for themselves.

Lauren Boos was only 3 years old, 4 at the most, when her family first provided an experience that set the tone for much of her life. Her parents, career professionals and Catholic lay missionaries, brought Boos and her older brother with them for a yearlong stay in the East African nation of Tanzania. 

“It sounds young, but it was such a profound experience that I have the most vivid memories from our time there, and it had a lasting impact on me for the rest of my life,” said Boos. She can still recall the Christmas when her family delivered gifts to some children at an orphanage there. It was a simple package comprised of oranges, candy, and toys, but the children were overjoyed by the gesture.

The Wisconsin native is now 20, and in her third and final year of the accelerated pre-law program at University Campus. In fact, she is among the first participants in the intensive study program, which has attracted exceptional young people to come and make Saint Leo part of their paths to success. “I have become the person I want to be by being here,” she said.  

Each of the future law students has an interesting personal story: Boos’ involves the influence of her parents’ longstanding missionary work abroad. Boos traveled to Tanzania as a toddler, and again repeatedly as youngster and teen, which influenced her to choose Saint Leo for the career preparation the university is providing her for international human rights law.

For Americans, the mention of Tanzania is more apt to bring to mind the famous mountain peak in the country, Kilimanjaro, the tallest in Africa. The nation overall spans an area twice the size of the state of California with a population of more than 50 million people, unevenly distributed across the geography, many still in rural areas. 

Important Family Foundation

Tanzania, for Lauren Boos, is also the beautiful, memorable place where her parents started their married life, soon after Karene Fischer Boos earned a bachelor’s degree in physical therapy and Eric Boos earned a doctorate in philosophy and ethics to prepare for a life of college teaching. 

Lauren Boos Photos“My parents were attending Marquette University when they were asked to come to Tanzania to help start a Catholic college,” Lauren Boos said. “One of my dad’s past professors wrote him a postcard saying ‘We’re in Tanzania; why aren’t you?’ This was their invitation to come to Tanzania to help start the college, and they accepted it. They were engaged to be married at that time. So they graduated from Marquette, got married, and left days later for Tanzania.”

Eventually the young married couple returned to Wisconsin and began their family, but never really left behind the people and the needs of the one-time British colony. Even as their family grew, the Booses kept going back with their children, who now number four. The Booses assisted missionaries with multiple human rights projects. 

“The rights of pastoral people, as well, is a huge issue,” Boos said. “It is also always a two-pronged attack to make change. You must have people working on the ground on immediate advocacy as well as people on top, working hand-in-hand with government.” 

None of this was easily accomplished. But the Booses sought a way to make themselves more effective advocates through education. While raising three young children, they each earned law degrees in the early 2000s at the University of Wisconsin. And Eric, in addition to the standard juris doctor, also earned a post-graduate law degree in international law and property. (Karene also earned a doctorate in physical therapy, which has a direct bearing on recent missionary work.)

“Now they work with each other, and they use their professional degrees in unison with being lawyers and lay missionaries to truly make a difference,” said Boos, who was still a toddler when her parents earned their law degrees. 

Then came an email in 2012 that prompted the family to become involved in another matter in Tanzania—one that they had not known much about previously.

Call for Help from Afar

The correspondence was from Sister Helena Ntambulwa. She was trying to take care of children with albinism in her area and had limited means. She previously had come to know the Booses and their commitment to Tanzania and missionary work. She thought the Americans could help with much-needed fundraising and more. The children in her care were at terrible risk.

Albinism is a genetic problem. The patients lack enough of the protective pigment melanin for the skin, the hair, and the eyes, which puts those affected at risk of skin cancer. Low vision is usually present. Other ailments may occur as well, and patients often die at young ages. The disorder is found all over the world, but for some reason is more common in certain regions, including some African nations. Exposure to equatorial sunlight there intensifies the risks of skin cancers and burns. 

Some people with albinism face social discrimination, too, and are stigmatized, researchers have confirmed.

Lauren Boos PhotosAnd yet that was not the worst of what Sister Helena and her peers in other areas of Tanzania and neighboring nations were fighting. Witchcraft practitioners and traffickers who still hold sway in more rural areas continue to perpetuate false notions that those with albinism have special powers—and may be ghosts, but are not really people—that can be tapped by harvesting their body parts. This fiction can lead some parents to abandon their children. Even worse, it encourages bounty hunters to abduct, mutilate, and even murder people with albinism and sell the victims’ biological parts. Limbs have been amputated in some cases.

Such gruesome crimes were not openly acknowledged much, but Sister Helena and human rights organizations—the United Nations and Human Rights Watch and their investigators among them—heard credible accounts from survivors and parents of abducted and murdered children. Children are most at risk.

The nun started what Lauren calls “a safe haven” for children with albinism, The Perpetual Hope Center in the town of Lamadi. “Parents who want to keep their children safe will walk miles to take their children to the center. We try as much as possible to not make it necessarily an orphanage. We allow the parents to come and visit,” explained Boos, who was 12 or 13 when she became aware of this program. The first priority for the center was for the children to be safeguarded, nurtured, outfitted with protective attire and sunglasses, and educated by Sister Helena and her staff. 

The Booses started a nonprofit in 2012 called ZeruZeru Inc. to support fundraising projects and grant work that funded expansions in the care and protective services for the children. Lauren was able to witness these on-ground developments and improvements during work trips to the center, where she interacted with the children. “They are so young and beautiful and innocent and in need of so much help,” she said. 

As much as the high-schooler enjoyed being with children, she also was watching what her parents were able to do with their legal and political skills to expand the grounds and services of the haven and to influence societal views toward the children. 

“We have had many powerful political leaders visit and work closely with us,” she said. Their support is needed to obtain permits for buildings and passage of local laws to protect those with albinism, she said. Others are performing similar work; advocates for those with albinism in Malawi, for instance, in 2016 urged their government to help supply fortified housing for those with albinism so they could be safer in their homes from violent home invasions.

Organically, it seemed, Boos was growing up determined to be a human rights attorney and faithful Catholic, like her parents. She considers her career choice the best option for promoting sustained justice. 

Discovering Saint Leo

That was the plan she had formulated by her senior year of high school in Wisconsin, where she was a strong student and a four-sport athlete. She did not know about Saint Leo until a recruiter for women’s athletic teams introduced the topic. “It was too perfect for me,” she recalled. “We’re very strong Catholics, so Saint Leo was appealing that way, as well as the 3 + 3 law program, the perfect career path for me.” 

The warm weather sounded good to the Midwestern athlete, too, who now swims competitively with the Lions women’s team. 

As a 3 + 3 student, she opted to become a political science major, with the legal studies minor required of all participants in the accelerated pre-law program. The beauty of a 3 + 3 program is that it allows people who are certain that they want to become attorneys, and who are ready for the demands of extra work and big expectations, to save time and money on their educations. There is no way to shorten the three difficult years that it takes to earn a law degree. But Saint Leo has become one of the universities to offer the curriculum and advising needed to prepare students for the standard admission requirements of cooperating law schools in three years, instead of the traditional four. Saint Leo will award participating students their bachelor’s degrees once they have successfully completed their first year at a participating law school, which would be either Florida State University College of Law in Tallahassee, or the Barry University Dwayne O. Andreas School of Law in Orlando, FL. This saves the student and family a year of undergraduate tuition. Boos is planning on Florida State University.

Her professors in political science, criminal justice law, U.S. constitutional law, and international relations have all influenced and inspired her and are supportive of her goals, she said. As a group, they appreciate her work ethic, her consistency in being prepared for class, and her unique drive, said Dr. Heather Parker, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, who personally works with the 3 + 3 pre-law students. Parker has served as an advisor to Boos, and is able to speak for the faculty in articulating the basis for their admiration of Boos. “She is embracing her nontraditional upbringing and bringing traditional tools to help populations in need.” 

Boos is also grateful for the totality of the Saint Leo environment and the ways it has supported her journey. Her sense that she would be enriched by living on a Catholic campus has proven correct, she said. “It encourages me to integrate my faith experience and my lived experience as a missionary to Tanzania into my academic and social life on campus. I feel a natural and symbolic connection to the core values of the college and my own Catholic values. Saint Leo really lives up to its reputation for promoting a values-based education through the core values.”   

Meanwhile, the junior is working part time keeping abreast of developments at the refuge, where about 75 children now reside. Boos was last able to travel to Tanzania in late 2017 during Saint Leo’s Christmas break. She has remained secretary of the nonprofit her family created to help fund the activities of the refuge.

Her parents continue to be effective, constructive supporters, who now alternate in their journeys abroad so that one parent can be at home with her younger siblings. Karene Boos has been able to add a physical therapy clinic to the haven. And the two women have been able to share some relevant experiences during non-school months.

During the summer, for instance, Lauren Boos traveled with her mother to the United Nations for an important conference on persons with disabilities; albinism is now classified by the United Nations as a disability, which improves the legal environment for obtaining protections for those with the condition. The UN and regional groups in Africa also began promoting June 13 as International Albinism Awareness Day, which should help alleviate some of the ignorance and suspicion patients face. In another 10 years, Boos has written, she hopes to be an attorney herself working with the United Nations on these issues and aiding in the prosecution of “those who have been responsible for the brutal killings of those with albinism.”

She is going into a stressful field, the 20-year-old acknowledged, and already she is balancing some challenging responsibilities, including earning money and carrying a heavy course load. Sports help, she said. “Doing something that I love like a sport is a release for me to forget the bad and be thankful for the good,” she said.

This year, as it is her third and final year at Saint Leo, she finds herself thinking of all “the lasts” as she encounters them, and takes a bit more time to relish the good feelings. “The last practice or meet with my team, the last trip to the library, the last class with my favorite professor, the last sunset at the dock,” she said. “You never believe when people tell you ‘It goes by fast,’ but it does. The last two years have been the best years, that I will cherish forever.”

The combination of emotional, personal, intellectual, and spiritual growth with pre-law studies can only help move her closer to her goal of becoming a human rights attorney with an international capacity to create good.  

“I know that it is big, but I know what I need to do to get there,” she said. “People along the way have helped me. I truly think that I will get there.” 

The popularity of TED talks, and their offspring TEDx events, continues to grow. Audiences simply love an inspiring story or meaningful life lesson, especially when delivered by a speaker who is sincere and focused. In 2018, two Saint Leo graduates in different cities added the distinction of “conference speakers” to their lists of personal accomplishments. Here, they share with the Saint Leo community the stories behind their respective talks, along with their taped presentations.


Cindy Rodriguez Kelley has long been a fan of the TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) Talks that feature experts on a variety of topics through live conferences, video feeds, and online formats. As the owner of her own firm, CRK Consulting, and a public speaker on management topics, Kelley describes herself as “kind of a TED junkie.” So when a group in nearby Ocala, FL, formed a licensed TEDx group four years ago to put on annual conferences, Kelley stayed abreast of its programming.

Things really clicked in 2018 when TEDx Ocala decided to seek speakers with a message related to the theme “It’s Time” for its November conference. The topic was selected after the emergence of the #MeToo movement that had been protesting marginalization, discrimination, and harassment, mostly of women, across segments of the American workplace culture, she recalled. “I think my message is timely,” Kelley said to herself.

She had already begun to address diversity and inclusion as necessary keys to success for government-sector departments, private corporations, and other similar organizations where she forged her management career. She saw some organizations tout ambitious mission statements but suffer customer complaints and stagnant results. Such disappointing results, she said, can be symptomatic of workplace culture that fails to integrate new ideas.

In her view, a diversity of ideas can generate new and successful approaches. But first, the corporate culture has to include individuals with diverse viewpoints and create an environment where new ideas are actually heard, and the best are consciously integrated into operations, she said. This approach contrasts with tokenism, she explained, where some employees from backgrounds that are new to the workplace are hired, but find their ideas ignored. Kelley also has a related theme she likes to address on achieving women’s empowerment “without disenfranchising men.”

Kelley’s 12-minute talk (all speakers have strict time limits) was not only accepted, it was embraced by the audience of 500, the largest group she had encountered at that point.

“I got a standing ovation, and I had a line of people who wanted to talk to me,” she recalled. Kelley is hoping to build on the momentum to further grow her client and follower base.

The TEDx day was an uplifting family moment, as well, for the 46-year-old entrepreneur. Since the previous year, Kelley and her two daughters, one a young adult and the other a teen, had been adjusting to the unexpected death of Kelley’s husband and the siblings’ father. The excitement the conference generated was a welcomed development. “It’s really been an amazing year,” Kelley reflected. “My girls and I have come a long way.”

Used with permission of the TEDx Talks YouTube channel


Ammar Mohrat ’17 loves being a young professional and aspiring entrepreneur in the United States, and he credits Saint Leo University with helping him start a professional life here once he was granted political asylum. It is also true that he still misses the city where he grew up, Homs, Syria.

Those of us living in the developed western world have not had much occasion in the past several years to think about the cities and towns in Syria as places people would still miss. Since a revolt began in 2011 against the repressive leader Bashar al-Assad, Americans have seen in Syria a brutal crackdown against civilians and broadcast images of burned-out neighborhoods and refugees in flight. 

While truthful, those images by themselves do not show all there is to know about the nation. They do not show the mountains, the valleys, the forests, the desert areas, or the coastline that borders the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Americans never got to picture the large, vibrant city of Homs the way Mohrat did while he was growing up within his large family. It is the place where he rode his bike and enjoyed following soccer, where his family had a market, where he attended school, and where he started college. It is where people led full lives and hoped, following the start of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, for more political freedom in their country.

These are the vibrant scenes that Mohrat carries in his memory and that he has wanted to share with people since coming to the West. Mohrat got his chance in Orlando in 2018 when the local TEDx organization sponsored a conference on the theme of “Home.” An Orlando member of the Tau Kappa Epsilon (TKE) fraternity, which Mohrat joined while at University Campus, encouraged the computer science graduate to audition for the chance to tell his story. Mohrat described his first home, and described how America has changed his story. He was one of only 11 speakers selected for the conference, held in October.

Used with permission of the TEDx Talks YouTube channel

What you need to know about TED, in the organization’s own words.

TED is a nonpartisan nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks. TED began in 1984 as a conference where Technology, Entertainment, and Design converged, and today covers almost all topics—from science to business to global issues—in more than 110 languages. Meanwhile, independently run TEDx events help share ideas in communities around the world.

An alumnus provides expert guidance on crafting your professional persona and keeping it up-to-date.

We hear plenty of buzz in the career world about how people need to develop their own brands, similar to the way companies have created lasting, positive associations with their products or workplaces. One example might be the way people think of Apple products as being stylish and intuitive, and the company as being a cool employer. Another example is how Southwest Airlines has managed to cultivate and maintain its reputation of being a low-frills, lower-cost carrier that is enjoyable to fly because of fun, friendly flight crews who crack jokes to make the time pass quickly. Such brands help buyers and sellers alike in a marketplace to quickly recognize with which parties they want to do business. 

Since the world of work has become so fluid, with people changing jobs and relocating often, and with companies getting in and out of business lines and partnerships, it makes sense that people develop their own personal brand. They can cultivate their own brand from one position to the next, or for that matter, from one company or one industry to the next. A strong personal brand, the thinking goes, can communicate to everyone around why someone is a desirable employee or a good fit—a valuable attribute in a fast-changing world. 

Building an effective personal brand remains an elusive concept for many people, though. That is why Nick DeMarinis ’05 devotes time and energy speaking to small groups and individuals about how people actually go about crafting a brand, communicating it to people, and staying true to it.

DeMarinis is well-suited to this work. He began his business career in sales and gradually moved up into broader managerial positions where he had responsibilities not just for meeting sales targets, but also for divisional hiring, profits, and operations, meaning greater responsibility for the success of different kinds of employees across multiple functions. 
Along the way, he worked across a variety of cultures and markets in Europe and the Asia Pacific region. All this gave him valuable experience and the ability to look at the world from different viewpoints. Additionally, DeMarinis spent several years working from a variety of locations for LinkedIn, the professional social media network company whose platform was invented to help people communicate their brands in the virtual world. 

DeMarinis advises people to start by thinking of their personal brand as their reputation among other people. A good reputation is something to earn and to keep, and a personal brand is like that, he said. A brand or reputation is maintained through actions, and through visibility among physical networks, such as work and professional groups, and in the virtual world through social media, he said. 

If that still sounds vague, think of what personal “pillars” or qualities make up your personal code of conduct, DeMarinis suggested. “My brand involves three key pillars: love, positivity, and compassion. These pillars are who I am, what I want my brand to be, and guiding principles for how I bring my brand to life.” 

DeMarinis shares important aspects of his life during a presentation.

So in the physical work world as well as in virtual spaces, DeMarinis wants people to see a “compassionate leader” when they encounter him. His philosophy as a supervisor: “People don’t work for me; I work for them.” This means getting to know all the employees well so that he can coach, correct, and guide aptly where needed. 

He also leads through the example of good work performance, he said. Employees still have accountability for the quality of their work as individuals, DeMarinis stressed, and he acknowledged that sometimes a leader has to make a personnel change. He likes to turn to the world of baseball for examples almost everyone has seen. “Sometimes a pitcher can be in the game too long and is no longer effective. The compassionate action by the manager is to remove that person. Sometimes being compassionate means making decisions that may seem tough in the moment, but is a good decision long-term.” 

Coaching people who are inside the organization and projecting positivity and competence to clients and prospective clients outside the workforce requires a certain amount of focused attention. DeMarinis sets aside time at two points in the week to create thoughtful messages to these audiences. Even though there is overlap in the content (as there should be if someone stays true to his or her brand), DeMarinis likes to think of the groups distinctly when he is considering what to say to whom. 

On Sunday evening, he said, he sets aside an hour or two of quiet time to read articles and essays that speak to the pillars he embraces, and to digest reports that are relevant to his industry, perhaps in a technical or quantitative way. Then DeMarinis makes comments on the pieces worth sharing—and it is not worth sharing if you do not have a substantive remark to offer—and schedules the content for digital postings that will appear during the week. He still uses the LinkedIn platform’s scheduling tool for this. This is one way of curating his brand.

He also tends regularly to this practice on Fridays. That is the day of the week when he sets aside time to write two to three emails that are typically personalized thank-you messages. He enjoys this, and keeps his notes succinct to express gratitude for a specific deed or observation. 

“If it’s not specific, it’s not genuine,” he noted, and no one likes that. But an employee will appreciate having a supervisor write that “I realize the other team member was struggling in that presentation earlier this week, and I saw that you jumped in and helped that person out.” 

DeMarinis offered guidance in this step-by-step format for Spirit readers.

1. Identify your brand

Before you can even think about elevating your brand, you have to know what your brand is or what you want it to be. Who are you? Identify a few key pillars that best represent who you are. What do people say about you when you are not in the room? More importantly, what do you want them to say about you? Then think about how you convey this both online and offline. Is this an accurate reflection? If so, great. If not, make some changes. Remember that people will do Internet searches on each other before they are about to meet, so it is quite likely they are going to see some information about you.

2. Take control of your brand

In regard to online, take control of your social profiles on all platforms. Build out your profiles with the intended use and audience in mind. For example, my profile for Instagram is more personal (with family photos and sports) than LinkedIn, which is more geared toward my professional identity. In today’s world, it is expected for us to have a digital brand. Accept it, own it, and put your best foot forward.

3. Bring your brand to life

Branding is not static. It is living and breathing. Building a brand is more than just having a profile. It is reflective of how you interact with your network and community. It is important to be active on social platforms because that is part of living in our world today. Connect with people, engage with your network, and share content. This is the absolute most important part of personal branding. Every interaction is a building block to your brand.

Nick DeMarinis is a director of enterprise growth for WeWork, based in New York City. WeWork is an innovator in leasing commercial real estate space for the co-working needs of businesses, the creation of residential living communities, and other pursuits that contribute to forming communities. Prior to joining WeWork, he spent 12 years in the technology industry. He started his career with Yahoo and then spent the last eight years through 2018 with LinkedIn in various leadership roles across both North America and Asia Pacific. He was based in Hong Kong for a time and was responsible for operations there. He earned his bachelor’s from Saint Leo at University Campus in business administration with a specialization in management, and attained a master’s degree in international business from St. John’s University in Rome, Italy.

Families form in a variety of ways. Some members are born, while others are sought. Some members are inherited, and some are a surprise.

Within the Saint Leo community is an array of blended families. There are faculty and staff who commit to taking students under their wings, ensuring their success and well-being, and students who take care of one another.

Here, we profile the matriarchs of three such families in the Saint Leo community.

Ms. Evon, giver of hugs, drier of tears, Lions cheerleader

Ms. Evon

Great people, great children come through the doors of Saint Leo, said Ephonia McCobb, or “Ms. Evon” as she’s known to the Saint Leo community. A housekeeper in Facilities Management, McCobb takes care of the Marion Bowman Activities Center and its many student-athletes, coaches, and staff.

No one is a stranger to McCobb. Everyone is greeted with a hug and wished well with a “have a blessed day.”

At the Marion Bowman Activities Center, where she began working in 2006, McCobb does more than take care of housekeeping. She takes care of Saint Leo’s student-athletes as if they were her own children. And she takes care of their families, too, reassuring them that their children will be just fine at Saint Leo.

“There is one student, Mary, and her parents dropped her off in August,” McCobb recalled. “They were in the hallway crying. Her daddy was crying harder than her mama. I asked why. He said, ‘We’re dropping off my daughter.’ He said, ‘I just dropped my son off to the Marines last month.’”

“I told them they had done a wonderful job!” she continued. “They got their children to a good place. I asked if we could pray about it, and we did. And then I told them to go get their date night back!”

She offers student-athletes advice on life, dries their tears, and gives them hugs. “I am proud of all of them,” McCobb said. “I tell them that when they leave Saint Leo, if they see someone who is going down the wrong path, they need to take five minutes to talk to them about what they need to be doing, and then tell them ‘have a blessed day.’ Perhaps you might touch someone.”

Nancy Cheek, virtual communicator, career coach extraordinaire

McCobb’s impact on the lives of student-athletes has not gone unnoticed. “Ms. Evon is the epitome of our core value of community,” said Brad Jorgensen, head men’s lacrosse coach. “Almost every young man I have recruited has been greeted with a hug and a loud ‘welcome to the Saint Leo family!’ from Ms. Evon.”

Nancy Cheek

For nearly four years, Nancy Cheek has worked to create a close-knit community where no physical community exists. As associate director of Career Services, she helps hundreds of students each year with their career needs—no matter where they live—most times never meeting face to face.

“What I look forward to is when students tell me they are coming to graduation,” Cheek said. “After having developed a relationship with them remotely, it is so exciting to finally meet them in person.”

With a large portion of Saint Leo students attending school online or at education centers across the United States, Cheek is passionate about ensuring remote students feel supported in achieving their careers goals. While not able to physically be with them, she uses email, photographs, social media, video conferencing, phone calls, and online webinars to build relationships across the Internet.

“Our goal is to make online students feel like they are part of a community without ever coming into an office,” Cheek said.

Countless students have thanked Cheek for her support. She recalls the story of a student who decided to attend Saint Leo after retiring from a 20-year career in the military. He lived in a remote part of Florida and needed help assessing career options.

“I just want to say thank you again for all the helpful guidance you gave me,” wrote the student. “You said I did all the hard work, but I never really felt like I was doing it alone.” After working together for some time, the student Cheek helped was able to land a job with a government agency.

“I live for the days when I get an email or phone call that says, ‘Hey, I just got a job offer,’” Cheek said. “That is why I do what I do.”

Dr. Joanne Roberts, professor, advisor, retired public school teacher and principal

Dr. Joanne Roberts with spring 2018 scholarship recipient, Justina Guptill.

Every spring and fall, a new group of transfer students in their 20s and 30s enroll in the education program at the Gainesville Education Center in central Florida. The future elementary and middle school teachers form cohorts as they make their way together toward their teaching degrees.

They attend rigorous classes four nights a week while holding down full- or part-time jobs to pay expenses. Luckily, they enjoy the kinship they develop within their cohorts and benefit individually and collectively from the benevolent leadership of Dr. Joanne “Tippy” Roberts, professor, advisor, and retired public school system teacher and principal. Roberts says she understands why the classes become close-knit. These young adults—often the first in their families to attend college—receive moral support from one another as they proceed through a tough curriculum.

“Our cohorts sometimes spend more time with each other than with their own families,” Roberts said. So her approach incorporates two philosophies. The first is that the program at the center will create a sense of belonging for all committed education students. The second is that the student kinship can be nurtured into professional collegiality that will serve them well in their careers.

“Family is a good word,” Roberts said of the center environment for the education students. “It’s a learning community, but it’s a learning family. We work together, and we learn together.”

Recent middle grades education graduate Justina Guptill ’18 affirms that “the education program is special all in its own because you really get to know your professors and classmates. You spend so much time as a cohort, it becomes impossible to do anything other than care for the people around you and help in their successes as well as your own. Dr. Roberts put together a very caring faculty to help create the family atmosphere throughout the entire program!” The faculty she is referring to includes adjunct instructors and professors Roberts hired and supervises to teach the education courses in Gainesville. The adjuncts are a vital part of the family, as well.

Given Roberts’ multiple responsibilities, it is difficult to quantify the impact she has made during her years at Saint Leo. By her own count, Roberts estimates she has worked with 450 undergraduate and graduate students in various educational programs at the center.

Although Roberts considers teaching the hardest job in the world, second only to being a parent, she said she cannot imagine doing anything else with her life or finding a deeper sense of fulfillment in any other learning environment.

“During the 15 years I have worked at Saint Leo, I have become a better educator and gained more from my students and colleagues than I ever learned from textbooks.”

When Saint Leo University celebrated its 125-year anniversary in 2014, Dr. Heather Parker contributed to the commemoration by starting a local oral history project that focused on people and families who were involved with Saint Leo down through the generations. This work parallels her own, more focused scholarly research into the relationship between African-Americans living locally, who were generally from Protestant congregations, and the distinctly Catholic Saint Leo.

Dr. Heather Parker with a visual display of some of her research into Saint Leo’s early history.

Among Parker’s recorded interviews is one with Gloria Billings Roberts, who had been a Saint Leo student and employee. Her husband, Levy Roberts, was also a Saint Leo employee. Roberts grew up in the local area and attended public schools during an era of mandatory integration. Her family, the Billingses, lived nearby and had many employment connections with Saint Leo. Roberts even worked part time in the girl’s cafeteria from 1967 to 1970 while in high school. It is worth knowing that during Roberts’ childhood, it was the norm for many public schools locally to be segregated. Integration in some areas in Florida and elsewhere came about as late as 1970, prompted by a court order. The atmosphere at campus apparently differed from other environs, though. Roberts entered Saint Leo College in 1970.

Parker, now associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, asked Roberts about her college experience and about the personal and family connections with Saint Leo over many years for the oral history project.

HP: When you started at Saint Leo as a student in 1970, how many other black kids were enrolled as students, do you think?
GR: Wasn’t many. Not many of us there. In fact, I’m trying to think, did I know anybody? If there were, they were on the athletic team, and I didn’t have them … all my friends were white because at that time there wasn’t that many.
HP: But you made friends just fine. They accepted you?
GR: They accepted me just fine. Because we had the orientation, we got to meet each other whatever the case may be and there were classes. That group just jelled because that group was from the North anyway, and they were more open.
HP: What was your maiden name?
GR: Billings.
HP: So you mentioned your grandfather, who was the [orange] grove keeper.
GR: For Burkes and Burkes. His name was Frank McCoy.
HP: So Frank McCoy was your grandfather, and he worked for the Burkes?
GR: He was their grove keeper, or their foreman as they call it. In fact, we lived on the property there, right behind the college.
HP: So the Burkeses owned that grove—so it wasn’t the groves the monks kept. But (your grandfather) got to know Father Marion [Bowman], and Father Marion said ‘You have this granddaughter …’
GR: Well, his daughter. I was raised by him.
HP: And Father Marion said ‘When your daughter is ready, she can come to college,’ and he let you come basically for a song. For whatever you could pay.
GR: Books. That’s all I paid, was for books.
HP: And that’s an important story, it’s what I needed to hear because we wanted to find out the connections between the college (in whatever its forms) and the community. And your mother worked for the Montessori school with the nuns. And when did that start? Was this your grandmother?
GR: No, this was my mother. My grandmother [laughter], my grandmother worked for the Abbey. She was a cook for the Abbey.
HP: For the girls, or the nuns?
GR: No, not for the nuns, for the monks.
HP: And that was while you were growing up?
GR: Yeah, because she was there when I was in college. [My mother] also worked as a cook with my grandmother there at the Abbey. She worked there for a while as a cook, but then the nuns needed a cook, so my grandma sent her over there with the nuns. So she was a cook over at the nuns, and then they needed someone to go over to the day care, so they sent her to the day care.
HP: You were right. These connections run deep and everywhere.
GR: Basically, we’ve been around. Our family has been pretty much around with the college because of the fact that we lived right there. There was a house back in there we used to live in, so that connection was there so whenever they needed something when we were there …Father Marion would tell Daddy, and Daddy would come home and say they need this or that, or whatever the case may be, and that’s what would happen.

With the availability of genealogy tools for the public’s use and prime-time television shows about people exploring their lineages, more people are becoming aware that their relatives lives’ reflect history and that the stories of everyday people are worth knowing and sharing.

Holiday gatherings can provide an opportunity to have meaningful conversations with older family members about their formative years and family history. One of Saint Leo’s history professors, Dr. Heather Parker, was interviewed last year about ways people can ask relatives to share recollections.

Fruitful conversations resemble oral histories, which Parker is experienced in collecting using formal methods. But everyone, she said, can use some common interviewing techniques to engage with older relatives even if no book, archive, or collection is planned. Her advice circulated nationally in fall 2017 through an Associated Press story that included her as a source.

Parker recommended that interested parties ask family members in advance to bring photos to the next get-together, with a promise to handle them gently. If you can, she said, bring a portable scanner to preserve digital images of the photographs, or use a smart phone with adequate memory to do so. A magnifying glass will be handy, too, she said, because details from the backgrounds in the photos might give clues about the time-period and location in which the photo was taken.

When it comes to personal stories that people may tell, Parker advised listeners against being visibly shocked if any disturbing information is disclosed as this could discourage the relative from continuing to tell the story. She also cautioned against prying or being too pushy if people don’t want to go into details, as older generations in America might have a different sense of privacy than their younger counterparts.

On her website, Parker dispenses even more guidance for those who want to conduct detailed research, perhaps beyond the boundaries of their own families. For instance, she conducted research on African-American families who live currently or lived in prior generations around University Campus in Pasco County, FL. Theirs is a little-represented history. Many groups including African-Americans have not been included in national or local history books and were overlooked by city or community newspapers, but Parker employed recommended historical methods to help address the void.

Her website even includes a link to a site providing consent forms for people willing to provide interviews that can be formally archived. Parker also discusses on the website ways to find and approach interview subjects, as well as the related use of photographs, census records, and other types of records and documents.

Dr. Heather Parker has offered this photo from her own family to illustrate ways that descendants can delve into their history through images. This photo shows Parker’s grandmother, Isabelle, on the left, and Isabelle’s sister Ruth on the right. They are both single young ladies in this photo. The cars in the background, as well as the purses, outfits, and hairstyles are clues that this was taken in the 1940s. And the fact that the young ladies are leaning against the tree informally rather than standing upright indicates the image was not taken by a parent or authority figure, but someone they were comfortable with and maybe out for a bit of fun.

The natural desire for families to do things together makes it unsurprising that many often choose to learn together, too. Each year, Saint Leo serves as the choice university for myriad families. There are generations who have studied here and others who have gone to school together at the same time.

In this story, we profile just some of Saint Leo’s family connections.

Family overcomes obstacles to achieve education goals

Family plays a pivotal role in the lives of Mercy and Luis Figueroa, of Spring Hill, FL. The couple juggled military deployments, work, family commitments, and studying while earning their degrees at Saint Leo.

“My story starts rough, but ends in the American dream,” Mercy said.

Mercy and Luis in military
Mercy and Luis Figueroa served in the U.S. Army.

Mercy was born in Havana, Cuba, where her father was held as a political prisoner. Helped by the Catholic Church, her family made their way first to Spain and then to New York, leaving Cuba when Mercy was a toddler.

“The Catholic Church has been involved in my whole life,” she said. “It’s pretty awesome I got to go to Saint Leo.”

She grew up in Brooklyn while Luis grew up in the Bronx. “I took a long train ride to find a boyfriend,” she said. “He was a tall football player with a lot of hair, but I destroyed all the hair!”

Luis joined the U.S. Army first and then encouraged Mercy to get involved. She served in the Army for four years until her daughter Gabby was born prematurely at 24 weeks with cerebral palsy and other health issues.

“She decided as much as she loved the military, she loved her daughter more,” Luis said, and Mercy left the Army to care for Gabby.

Mercy transitioned from active duty military to being a supportive military spouse. Luis, a staff sergeant, left active duty in October 2014, and retired from the military this summer. He was often deployed, and Mercy took care not only of Gabby, but also sons Isaac, who is a junior at Saint Leo, and Connor, a high school senior. “We adopted Connor from the foster care system,” Mercy said.

Luis was stationed in Fort Lewis, WA, and while deployed in Iraq, he read about Saint Leo. “It piqued my interest,” he said. “Then I came down here and realized the campus was close [to the family home in Spring Hill].” In 2011, he began his first semester at Saint Leo, but again was deployed on a high-priority mission and had to take a break. But in fall 2014, he started again and never turned back.

Mercy tried to go to college “a million times,” she said. “Once I got Gabby medically stable, I started.” Luis encouraged her to join him at Saint Leo, and she earned her associate degree in 2016.

The university felt like home. “Once I heard about Saint Leo’s history, the diversity and inclusion, at a time when they didn’t have to accept other races, cultures, that is what made me love it,” Mercy said. “There are people from everywhere at Saint Leo. It is such a great place.”

Mercy and Luis looking at each other_LOcopy22
Mercy and Luis Figueroa enjoy a moment during their commencement ceremony in 2017, where Mercy was the student speaker.

The Figueroas not only have son Isaac studying at Saint Leo, but Mercy’s sister, Heavenly Aguilar, graduated with honors with a Bachelor of Arts degree in criminal justice-criminalistics at the Tampa commencement ceremony on May 31. She now is pursuing a master’s degree.

Mercy graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in criminal justice-criminalistics, while Luis also graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in business administration-technology management.

For Mercy, what’s next is pursuing a law degree at the University of Mississippi School of Law, while Luis will complete his MBA at Saint Leo in December.

A family finds their home at Saint Leo

The U.S. Air Force brought the Blackman family to Florida, but Saint Leo University provided a home away from home for them. For Derrick and Kimberly Blackman and their son Elijah, Saint Leo offered the opportunity to study together, lean on each other, and cheer for each other—in the classroom and on the basketball court.

The family moved to Tampa from Colorado in 2000 when Derrick Blackman was transferred to MacDill Air Force Base. While on active duty with the Air Force, Derrick took a class at Saint Leo and enjoyed it. From there, it was on to pursuing a degree.

Derrick graduated from Saint Leo in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in religion. Next up was Elijah, who enrolled after Saint Leo representatives visited Wesley Chapel (FL) High School during his senior year there. It took a little while longer for Kimberly. “About two years later, my husband encouraged me to enroll,” she said. “He said, ‘You’ve already got your associate degree, and Saint Leo is an awesome institution for getting a quality education.’ And it was great! I’m so grateful.”

Elijah distributing ashes2
Elijah Blackman served as a University Ministry Mentor and distributed ashes on Ash Wednesday.

Not only did Derrick encourage Kimberly, but he also pursued a master’s degree in theology. In 2017, the Blackmans graduated with Kimberly and Elijah receiving their diplomas together at the Saint Leo WorldWide commencement. Derrick received his master’s degree the next day during the morning graduate program commencement, where he also performed the national anthem.

“It was a great honor and privilege to be able to graduate the same year,” Derrick said. “It was even greater for me as husband and father to witness both my wife and son graduate from [Saint Leo] at the same time. The experience was extremely humbling.”

Now, Derrick teaches at Saint Leo as an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Philosophy, Religion, and Theology.

Kimberly graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology and now is working toward a master’s in human services administration at Saint Leo.

Kimberly and Elijah Blackman
Mother and son, Kimberly and Elijah Blackman, received their degrees together at the Saint Leo WorldWide commencement in 2017.

Elijah, who played basketball for the Lions and served as a University Ministry Mentor, earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in sport business. After completing an internship at the University of South Carolina, he now is a graduate assistant for sports strength and conditioning at the University of Arkansas.

Graduating from Saint Leo with his parents made an impression on Elijah. “I thought it was incredible to be able to sit next to my mom during graduation and see my dad walk across the very same stage less than 24 hours later,” he said. “Graduating at the same time as your parents doesn’t happen too often.”

Derrick and Kimberly’s other son, Donovan, graduated from aviation school in 2015 and is working in Arizona. And while they tried to persuade daughter Kandice to attend Saint Leo, she did not want to attend college with her parents and brother. She is enrolled Trinity College of Florida in New Port Richey.

Twin brothers choose same major and graduate together

Family Friendly theme Igbonagwam family2Two recent grads from the Class of 2018 are not only twins, but they also graduated with the same major and held equivalent jobs as residence hall advisors. In another family connection, they are the sons of Sandy and Dr. Okey Igbonagwam, a Saint Leo assistant professor of computer information systems in Virginia.

As an employee, Igbonagwam is eligible for the university’s tuition remission benefit, which is a big plus in helping families pay for college. While the financial benefit was certainly a factor in the decision, Igbonagwam said his sons were also drawn to Saint Leo by the appeal of University Campus. “First impressions matter,” according to Chidozie and Chigozie. They also liked the academics, and both have wanted to be doctors since they were small. That made the biology major with a specialization in biomedical and health sciences a natural fit. The major is offered only at University Campus.

So, the twins came to Florida and got involved with the Pre-Medical Club, the student-run fundraisers for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and research projects with faculty mentors. Since graduation, both have taken the Medical College Admission Test and are hoping to be admitted to medical school.

Despite deferring their dreams, couple graduates together

DSC_9028When Sherryl Johnson-Tandy and her husband Erik Tandy walked across the commencement stage together on the evening of Friday, April 27, it was a little out of the ordinary. Sherryl, a corporal in the Pasco County (FL) Sheriff’s Office, completed her Bachelor of Arts degree in criminal justice. So she was grouped with the other adult learners receiving undergraduate degrees in the evening.

Her husband Erik was also graduating with a Saint Leo degree, but his was the Master of Business Administration. The MBA grads are a big group, and are scheduled for the Saturday morning ceremony of commencement weekend, along with those who have attained graduate degrees in other disciplines. But Erik was switched to Friday night at his request so that he and Sherryl could walk across the stage together to celebrate their joint accomplishment.

It was no easy road for the two. They had long wanted to reach these educational goals, but raised a family, so they waited for everyone to be grown and out of the house. It did not quite work out that way. As they went to school, and worked, circumstances required that they also tend often to three grandchildren, ages 5, 8, and 9.

Sherryl has a memory of both the adults studying at night, and then Erik “waking me up from sleeping on my computer.” And she often did the same for him. When their finals were over, she said, it was a blessing to don their robes and receive their diplomas together.