Catholic Church

Human TraffickingA grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation provides Saint Leo University with the opportunity to educate Catholic sisters fighting human trafficking in Africa.

In the global battle against human trafficking, there is an unlikely seeming superhero. She does not wear a badge or carry a gun. Nor does she hold a position as a government leader. Instead, this superhero works for a greater authority. She is a sister of the Catholic Church.

Human trafficking, a crime that involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to lure victims into labor or commercial sex acts, has claimed more than 24.9 million victims around the world, according to the U.S. Department of State. There are different types of trafficking, ranging from forced labor and marriages, to debt bondage and sexual exploitation. In some of the most horrifying cases, traffickers have targeted children, turning them into soldiers to fight in war, or they have used their victims for organ harvesting.

Catholic sisters who work in some of the poorest communities across the world often find this crime in their midst. They meet trafficking victims who need help re-entering society, or they work in positions where they can help influence the narrative about trafficking in the community.

Because of the influential role that Catholic sisters possess, nonprofit organizations and foundations are collaborating with them. The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation is one such organization. It was created in 1944 by international business pioneer Conrad N. Hilton, who founded Hilton Hotels and left his fortune to help individuals throughout the world living in poverty and experiencing disadvantage.

Today, the foundation partners with TalithaKum, a global network of sisters focused on eradicating human trafficking.

“Their interconnectedness around the world provides the ideal circumstances for strong networks to help combat human trafficking,” said Sister Jane Wakahiu, associate vice president of program operations and the head of the Catholic Sisters Initiative with the Hilton Foundation. “They provide a safe and loving space for survivors of human trafficking, a healing presence, and skills-building for reintegration in communities.”

To help aid their cause, the foundation awarded Saint Leo University a grant valued at $420,000 in 2017 to provide sisters with training focused on addressing human trafficking.

“As a Catholic university, we were incredibly honored to receive this grant in support of such a critical cause,” said Mary Spoto, vice president of Academic Affairs at Saint Leo University. “With our experience in online learning and faculty expertise in social work, criminal justice, and management, we have been able to develop a unique program that is proving to be truly useful to Catholic sisters across the globe.”

Thanks to the grant, Saint Leo University has now educated 80 sisters through the online certificate program in human trafficking. The last cohort will convene this fall.

Real and Relevant Learning

The online program is comprised of two courses: project management and human trafficking. Faculty in criminal justice, management, and social work all contributed to its development, and the university’s learning and design team put the material into an online format.

Human Trafficking Course screenshot
A scenario-based lesson from the course on human trafficking.

Keeping the sisters in mind, the course employs parables, a method of teaching used in African culture and the Bible. The sisters are introduced to stories about victims of human trafficking and are asked to think critically about how to help them. The course even uses familiar Bible stories to illustrate information.

The course also is incredibly practical. For homework, the sisters are tasked with assembling a training manual that, once complete, can be used by themselves and others to help victims of human trafficking.

The sisters also have the opportunity to network and exchange information and resources with one another. Course instructors created a group through WhatsApp so the sisters can continue to stay in touch and network. The program has become more than just training. It has become a network for good.

Global Impact

With Saint Leo University’s history of excellence in online learning, the sisters engage in the course from where they live and work. A majority of the sisters live in Nigeria and Kenya, but the course has also served sisters living in Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Algeria, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Italy, and Mauritania.

The sisters are college-educated women who hold jobs, often relating to their degrees. Their educational backgrounds range from law and business to psychology, education, and medicine. By occupation, many of the sisters work as teachers, social workers, counselors, or missionaries. Some also work in a business setting or for non-governmental organizations.

Sister Hedwig Muse – Uganda

Sister Hedwig Muse

Sister Hedwig Muse belongs to the institute of The Little Sisters of Mary Immaculate, founded by Comboni missionaries in Northern Uganda in 1936. By profession, she is a lawyer and teacher, which has led her to do work in peace and justice issues at the national level in Uganda, as well as through the Association of Religious in Uganda (ARU).

Through her work with ARU, Muse has guided others working in the peace and justice forum to be equipped with skills and knowledge through anti-trafficking campaigns. She also served on a committee tasked with reviewing employment laws in Uganda, allowing the government to criminalize trafficking and establish punitive measures.

Muse was part of the first cohort of students in the online certificate program.

“With the knowledge l acquired, l was able to form a group at the village level to sensitize the community,” Muse said. She invited leaders from all religious denominations to spread the message as widely as possible. “They were so delighted that l was doing a course on a crucial issue that they were battling with at the time.”

Sister Gloria Aniebonam, DC Swansea

Sister Gloria Aniebonam

As a member of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul community, Sister Gloria Aniebonam serves people living in poverty both physically and spiritually. At the time she was enrolled in the course, Aniebonam served as the provincial leader of the order’s Province of Nigeria, a position that involved working with sisters in Burkina Faso and Ghana to ensure the vitality of their services and faithfulness to their charism. (The order’s province takes in the three West African countries: Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Ghana.) A central part of her role also included engaging members and collaborators of the congregation in professional and spiritual formation.

“The course was of huge help to me and my congregation, especially for serving persons who have experienced any form of poverty either by being trafficked or other forms of slavery that have emerged and seem to be ever-emerging,” Aniebonam said.

Since 2015, her congregation, in collaboration with the Conference of Women Religious of Nigeria, has been coordinating the service for people who are trafficked, she said. The congregation works with children and youth, most of whom experienced child labor and other forms of slavery in Nigeria, Ghana, Burkina Faso, and other countries across the world.

“The course helped me particularly in becoming aware of the subtle forms of slavery or trafficking, which are often within our vicinity,” Aniebonam said. “Yet one can be oblivious or inattentive due to ignorance.”

Sister Philomena Okwu, DC Nigeria

Sister Philomena Okwu

Working in the Province of Nigeria as a Daughter of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, Sister Philomena Okwu has served in a variety of capacities on several missions. Through her missionary work in Kumasi, Ghana, she worked with the street children in the community, and on efforts to generate awareness about human trafficking.

In 2007, she returned to Nigeria and assumed a new role managing a girls’ high school, a position she held until 2013. During this time, Okwu was appointed project coordinator of the Daughters of Charity services in Nigeria, Ghana, and Burkina Faso. While serving in these roles, she found herself on the front lines of human trafficking, working with street children in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.

Because of her work, Okwu had already participated in workshops on human trafficking, before enrolling in the online human trafficking course at Saint Leo. Still, she found the course helpful in reinvigorating her work.

“The course helps one to understand human trafficking and what it is all about, the types of human trafficking, causes—the push and pull factors, the agents, the magnitude of the problem and its devastating consequences, not only on the victims but also on their families and the larger society,” Okwu said. “It also exposes the unrelenting tricks and tactics of the traffickers to trap their preys.”

In January 2020, Okwu was appointed to a committee with a special focus on Benin City, a Nigerian city known as an origin point of most trafficking. It also has the highest population of returnees.

This unique role has increased the amount of work Okwu is performing to help victims of human trafficking. Her organization provides temporary shelter, counseling, medical care, food, pastoral care, social rehabilitation, and much more for victims. The organization is so crucial, that Okwu recalls helping two trafficking victims her first day on the job.  Both were mentally ill.

“I was confronted face to face with the evil and aftermath of human trafficking,” Okwu said. “These human beings have been destroyed for life by fellow human beings and never to rise again. I felt like Pope Francis, who said, ‘this cannot continue,’ but the task is enormous. It calls for a concerted effort and collaboration of stakeholders and governments.”

To Help

Human trafficking is a crime happening in communities across the world. To learn more about human trafficking, or if you or someone you know may be the victim of human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at (888) 373-7888 or visit humantraffickinghotline.org .

Photos courtesy of Sister Hedwig Muse, Sister Gloria Aniebonam, and Sister Philomena Okwu

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.