Ammar Mohrat


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.

It was just about three years ago, Ammar Mohrat recalls, that he started to think his future was a dead end, another casualty of the war in Syria.

At age 23, he was effectively an exile who had been away from his city, his parents, and the family home since he was 20. Before that time, he had been studying computer engineering in college in the city of Homs, where he had grown up and where his family operated a farm and supermarket.

But the Syria of his childhood did not last. In March 2011, peaceful springtime protests for free speech and democratic rights were met with arrests and violence from leader Bashar al-Assad. More protests and yet more crackdowns descended into what was first a civil war, but has since broadened into a larger, more chaotic conflict, as the Islamic State and other combatants have moved in and grabbed territory. Millions of people have fled to other nations in what has become the largest refugee crisis since World War II. The Mohrat family story is part of the diaspora.


Mohrat’s parents persuaded their son to leave Syria late in 2011. What Americans would consider some mild pro-democracy social media activities on his part, and participation in peaceful early protests, put him in too much danger with the ruling government, they feared. He left in December, leaving college behind, too. He and one of his brothers tried finding work in Dubai, on the Arabian Gulf, for months, but to no avail. He kept up the numerous contacts he had made on Facebook over the months and traveled around the region, landing not once, not twice, but three times, in Jordan. By then he was hoping for asylum in the United States, looking for a way back to college through new aid programs, hoping for a way to start again. But nothing seemed to be adding up. Two institutions extended him offers of partial scholarships, but neither was enough for a young man whose family was scattering, and whose funds had been exhausted.

“I was sitting in Jordan, doing nothing, thinking [to myself]: You have no future.” Shortly, though, he heard back from Saint Leo University, which had joined a new consortium trying to help displaced Syrian scholars and offered Mohrat a partial scholarship. When he had to decline the offer with the explanation that he “would not be able to pay the rest of the money,” Saint Leo asked him to write more about his story and circumstances.

He complied and was extended an offer of free tuition, room and board.

“I was so excited, so lucky.” His journey to Saint Leo was about to start. It was July 2013. A friend from the Syrian expatriate Facebook community gave him the airfare.

Once Mohrat reached Saint Leo, he was immediately enrolled in the Bridge Program, which helps international students improve their English-language skills for the demands of academic work. It also helps them adapt to American culture and society, and proved to be a wonderful way to make friends.

I really want to meet everyone who donated money for me to be here. I think that it is so nice to change somebody’s life

With his natural ambition and optimism revived, Mohrat has excelled academically. “If I get a B, it is really annoying to me.” He did not mind that he had to start all over again as a freshman and complete all of Saint Leo’s liberal arts requirements. He has chosen the computer science major and is typically on the Dean’s List. In the Fall 2015 Semester, he was among the first group of Saint Leo students inducted into a brand-new chapter of an academic honor society for the information and computing sciences. Now a junior, he is working on a possible business plan and starting to think about graduate school.

Ammar MohratAt the same time, Mohrat is having a well-rounded social experience at college and is exploring American culture. For Paige Ramsey-Hamacher, director of Multicultural and International Services, it is gratifying to see the 25-year-old regularly attend campus activities, speaking events, and programs, “to embrace this culture, and of course, this university.” He joined the Tau Kappa Epsilon (TKE) fraternity, whose slogan is “Better Men for a Better World.”

Mohrat also befriended through Facebook another young man from Syria who was looking for a college in the United States. Mohrat successfully encouraged him to try Saint Leo through the regular international admission process (not the one-time scholarship Mohrat maintains).

That is what others have done for Mohrat, he reflects: guided him when he needed it. Much of the help he has received has been financial. One Syrian expatriate helped him buy textbooks, for instance. Another donated to him an older vehicle, a 1993 Lexus, which allows him to go to work at a part-time job in Tampa and earn money. (He recently got a work permit and wants to earn enough money to visit his family, most of whom are now in Turkey; he speaks with his parents there weekly by Skype.) He looks forward to the day when he is successful and can help others in such ways. In the meantime, he wants to express a profound gratitude. “I really want to meet everyone who donated money for me to come here. I think that it is so nice to change somebody’s life.’’