Bridge Program


When international students enroll at Saint Leo University, they often have a working knowledge of English. However, they may not be fluent enough to understand academic courses in English, and they may be unfamiliar with American culture.

To combat those challenges, the Bridge Program was created at University Campus in 2012. The main goal of this program, according to its mission statement, “is to maximize students’ opportunities for academic success through assuring their balanced language development, personal and academic growth, and smooth transition and adaptation to their new academic culture.” The program offers a wide range of courses, including Composition and Grammar for Speakers of Other Languages, Introduction to American Culture and University Life, as well as classes that focus on reading, note-taking, and listening to lectures for non-native speakers of English.

Dr. Iona Sarieva is director of the Bridge Program. She recognizes that many international students need additional help to be successful, and believes that the Bridge Program offers students the assistance they require. Dr. Sarieva is experienced in teaching English as a second language training, English for academic purposes, and Russian as a foreign language. She holds a PhD in second language acquisition from the University of South Florida and worked as a Fulbright scholar at Sofia University in her native country, Bulgaria. She serves as academic advisor for the students, who are taught by a number of faculty members, including Nataliya Glover, English instructor, and Dr. Marcela van Olphen, professor of Spanish and Portuguese.

Since the program was created four years ago, it has served approximately 150 students. The initial group was from Saudi Arabia, but in years since students from 24 countries—representing Europe, Asia, Africa, Central America, and South America—have enrolled in the Bridge Program. Each semester, the group has at least one social event, such as a picnic or potluck dinner, so the students can integrate, socialize, and feel more comfortable in the university atmosphere. Many talented student-athletes have benefited from the program, including those on the tennis, swimming, soccer, and track teams.

Dr. Sarieva credits her multicultural career in large part to her own Bulgarian, Russian, and Greek heritage. She began studying languages and cultures and observed that in many ways they are “different yet the same.” She was inspired by work she once did for the Ellis Island Foundation on digitizing the Ellis Island immigration records, studying the details of those entering the country and learning who they were, what languages they spoke, where they were going, and from what they were escaping. When she looks at the United States, she is fascinated by the fact that “so many cultures came together to make the country what it is.”

Through her efforts, the Bridge Program enables cultures to come together in a similar way, and today’s Saint Leo is defined by that same rich diversity.


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.’’