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During challenging times, we often witness amazing feats of bravery and innovation in support of career growth or a common cause. Courageous individuals find a way to blaze new trails despite facing enormous odds. This got us to thinking about some of the shared characteristics of trailblazers. While certainly not an exhaustive list, we came up with these three.

A Strong Work Ethic

Goals alone will not get you far unless you roll up your sleeves and get to work. One of the greatest examples of a person with an unwavering work ethic was  the late U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, affectionately known as “The Notorious RBG.” At 87 years old, she rarely missed a day of work, even when hospitalized. She was a champion of women’s rights,  a four-time cancer survivor (1999, 2009, 2018, and earlier in 2020), took care of her husband when he fell ill, and would work well into the night after putting her children to bed during her child-rearing years. Despite reaching the heights of the legal profession as a U.S. Supreme Court justice, being nominated for the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and making Time magazine’s “Top 100 Influential People,” she was a humble servant of the people. In her own words, “I would like to be remembered as someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability.” Let her words serve as inspiration for your work.

Vision

Despite the shortlist of African-American director role models in Hollywood, actor and comedian Jordan Peele kept his eye on his personal goal of becoming a feature film director. After attaining a significant level of recognition for his work on Comedy Central’s sketch show Key and Peele, Peele feared that no one in the industry would take him seriously as a director, especially since he had never directed a film, let alone a feature. In an off-chance meeting with producer Sean McKittrick, Peele pitched a few ideas that did not land well and ended with “Here’s one you’ll never want to make…,” which was his pitch for the suspense thriller Get Out, a commentary on race relations in America. McKittrick immediately optioned the concept and Blumhouse Production executives later approved Peele as the film’s director, based on his specific vision for each scene and his commitment to writing the script. Get Out, produced on a $4.5 million budget, has earned more than $270 million worldwide to date, and received nominations for best picture and best director at the 2018 Academy Awards. At the same awards, Peele became the first African-American screenwriter in history to win the Academy Award for best original screenplay. He indeed is a trailblazer who never wavered from a specific vision. 

Passion

Whether motivated by righting a perceived wrong or seeking to change the world for the better, passion is what will keep you motivated, and hopefully, active. Defined as “an intense desire or enthusiasm for something,” passion is also what keeps trailblazers up at night and what helps them to find the energy to follow through. Current trailblazers include the thousands of everyday men and women in cities across America who have been marching in a nonviolent protest against the inhumane treatment of immigrants, racially motivated violence against African-Americans, and LGBTQ rights or other social justice issues. Other passionate trailblazers include the thousands of frontline health care workers who put their lives at risk to treat COVID-19 patients and the numerous virologists and other scientists working around the clock to develop a vaccine. God willing, their passion, vision, and work ethic will usher in a new normal, and from there other trailblazers can lead us into the next era of innovation and change.


Amina Abdullah

Dr. Amina Abdullah is the chair and assistant professor for the undergraduate human services program. She holds a Ph.D. in human services. Abdullah teaches and organizes community services initiatives and service-learning experiences for students enrolled in the human services program.

Craig Winstead

Dr. Craig Winstead is the chair of the Operations Management Department and an associate professor of project management. He holds a Ph.D. in organization and management. He teaches project management courses in the bachelor’s and MBA programs and serves as the course coach for project management micro-credentials.

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.

Encouraging and educating the next generation of law enforcement leaders is just part of what drives Saint Leo University alumna Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis, ’98. As the chief of the Durham (NC) Police Department and president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, Davis not only serves her community but also strives to improve her chosen profession. She advocates for change and standardization in training and the implementation of best practices for all law enforcement officers, nationwide.

Davis graduated with honors, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in criminology from Saint Leo, studying at Fort McPherson in Atlanta. She earned a master’s degree in public administration from Central Michigan University and hopes to earn a doctoral degree.

She began studying at Georgia Military College to earn an associate degree and then transferred her credits to Saint Leo. “I was very familiar with Fort McPherson as my father was a career Army soldier,” she said. “When he retired and came back to Atlanta, we stayed close to the military environment.”

A co-worker at the Atlanta Police Department spoke highly of Saint Leo University. “He started talking about his instructor, Dr. Art King, and said what a great curriculum the university offered,” Davis said. “I thought it was a good fit. And there were evening classes that fit into my schedule. I looked at the curriculum, and it fit with my career aspirations.”

Like many of Saint Leo’s criminal justice students who are employed at law enforcement agencies, Davis said, “There literally were days when I sat in my patrol car writing my papers in between calls.

“Saint Leo was just an awesome experience for me,” she said. “[Earning my degree is] probably one of the proudest moments in my life. I appreciated that journey because it was so tied to my work. To graduate and to graduate with honors, to know that the sky is the limit. I could do it. I could juggle the school work and still excel in the job.”

Serving Her Communities

Davis has served in law enforcement for 34 years, beginning in 1986 as an officer with the Atlanta Police Department. At the time she started, the Atlanta agency was making an effort to diversify its police force, especially recruiting more women. Although there were 11 women in her recruit class of 35, only two graduated.

She and other female officers encountered resistance to them being police officers, but “it’s been getting better over the years,” Davis said. “There are more women in charge. And there are some male leaders who are forward-thinking and appreciate the contributions women make. It can be better. With 18,000 police agencies around the country, think of how many women are leading [those agencies]. We could absolutely do better in that regard.”

Davis said her Saint Leo degree prepared her for leadership roles. “I think it broadened my perspective,” she said. “Even though I was very familiar with law enforcement, it expanded my thoughts on social problems, history of the law enforcement, community policing, and all of those important elements that are key to be successful—to really understand the criminal justice system. I learned what is expected of law enforcement agencies. It’s not just responding to calls.”

As she progressed through the ranks with the Atlanta Police Department, she developed strengths and skills in crime analysis and reduction; strategic planning; community engagement; special operations; homeland security; project oversight; capital improvements; and many more aspects of law enforcement.

In 2008, Davis was selected by Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine, as one of 80 women for the O White House Leadership Project, Women Rule! The group, dubbed “Tomorrow’s Leaders,” benefited from meeting with some of the country’s trailblazers, which helped prepare Davis for her future.

Her responsibilities as chief of the Durham Police Department, are varied. She became chief in 2016, and oversees a department of more than 600 employees and a $90 million yearly budget, while serving a population of 280,000. “A lot of the responsibility is more how we function as a unit and work well with the community,” the chief said. “Community engagement is critically important. Helping our officers know the community is our customers. Building relationships is imperative. I cannot think of a time that we need that more than now.”

Building Leaders

Davis became a member of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE) as a sergeant in Atlanta. While the organization is geared toward law enforcement executives and police chiefs, associate members who hope to be mentored also are accepted. Davis joined NOBLE because she wanted a mentor. “I wanted to know the ins and outs of leadership,” she said. “We [NOBLE] also do a lot of work in the community, a lot of education, and awareness training, especially in communities of color so young people have a good understanding of the police. And we want them to have safe encounters with the police. We discuss ‘what do you do if you’re pulled over?’ NOBLE also helps officers as well, managing the situation so that it is a safe encounter. It’s sort of a twofold approach. The end goal being mutual respect and making sure everyone goes home safe.”

NOBLE started in 1976 because of racial inequities that prohibited African-American law enforcement from moving up in the ranks, Davis said. “It was created to help to develop minority police officers into executives,” she said. “Since then, we’re very involved, trying to achieve equity in communities, equity in the way we operate. It isn’t a Black-only organization. It is for those who share similar values and goals.”

Now serving as president of NOBLE, Davis has been in the spotlight in 2020. She appeared on “Good Morning America” on ABC on June 3, and called for “sweeping changes and police reform” as she reacted to the nationwide protests taking place over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers.

But even more importantly, she testified before the U.S. Senate Committee for the Judiciary on June 16, about Police Use of Force and Community Relations. “I was invited to testify, and I discussed the 10 key areas that we feel as an organization must be addressed in order for police agencies to be more standardized, more accountable, and so they don’t keep officers who keep committing egregious acts.”

Calling For Change

Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis outside of the Durham (NC) Police Department building.

In her testimony, Davis said, “We wholeheartedly support the passing of the ‘Justice in Policing Act,’ which specifically addresses the loopholes that continue to allow policing tragedies free of oversight and accountability, environments that foster unfettered racial tension, and the continued desecration of what I’ve always thought to be a NOBLE profession. Lastly, on behalf of more than 3,800 law enforcement leaders, mostly minority who represent the membership of NOBLE, I thank you for supporting the law enforcement profession, but more importantly, for listening to the voices of protesters around the globe who demand change … they too deserve action.”

Davis said she is proud to serve as president of the national organization. “It’s an honor to be able to speak on behalf of the 18,000 police organizations, especially at times like this,” she said. “We come from the community, we understand the communities—not that my other colleagues do not—but we advocate for change, to listen to the community.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged her, Davis said. “But I’m still carrying out my goals and strategic plans,” she said. “I’ve done four interviews in one day.”

She considers communication as being key. “I encourage up-and-coming leaders to take advantage of public speaking, become certified as an instructor, take classes,” she said. “If you can’t communicate it, you can’t share it, or articulate it in a meaningful way. “It’s important to work on ourselves holistically.”

Saint Leo’s criminal justice program primed Davis for her current positions. “That’s what prepared me for leadership,” she said. “You can be a great police officer and know the fundamentals, but until you expand your perspective and learn what is expected and engage the community, you won’t succeed as a leader. You have to look at law enforcement from an aerial view.”

Her degree helped her learn about recruitment, retention, and other administrative support roles that leaders must fill. “You’re dealing with a lot of various personalities,” she said. “You’re trying to find cohesion—to bring everyone together from different places and perspectives. Look at it from a holistic standpoint, so you get buy-in for the philosophy of the department.”

Davis strives to lift up and mentor others. “I’m constantly trying to ensure people have opportunities to take on leadership roles,” she said. “I’m preparing an environment for that, including college and advanced training. I’m always telling people, ‘You can go back to school. I did it! I had a daughter, and I worked at the same time!’”

She and her husband, Terry, are parents to one daughter and grandparents of two, who live in New York. Most of her family live in Atlanta while the couple is based in Durham. Terry Davis also is a Saint Leo alumnus, having earned his associate degree from Saint Leo in 1997.

Looking toward the future, at 60, Davis said she is “sort of at the sunset of my career. I believe I still I have a lot to offer this industry. It may not be in the position as a chief; it could be in some other role. There is the saying, ‘To much is given, much is required,’ I still believe there is more for me to give.”


Hear Alumna Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis

View the testimony of Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis, chief of the Durham Police Department and president of National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.

Chief Davis on “Good Morning America”:

Alumna volunteers to help schoolchildren in Guam at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

During a time when it seemed like much of the world went into hiding due to COVID-19, alumna Dominique Cruz ’17 was preparing to launch an outreach event in her community.

Cruz said the idea for her service project came after reading an article about how a business in Las Vegas served schoolchildren meals during the pandemic. In the first few days after many schools announced closures, children missed receiving their free- or reduced-price school lunches, which in some situations may have been their only meal of the day.

“That sparked an interest for me,” Cruz said. “I thought, ‘so what happens to our kids here.’”

Today, the 2017 criminal justice graduate lives with her husband, Christopher, and daughter, Draya, in Guam, a U.S. territory located in the northern Pacific Ocean. The island is 35-miles long and home to more than 16,700 people. Just as in the mainland, the schools in Guam had closed during the pandemic, leaving children without their school lunches.

Cruz, who has worked as a victim rights advocate for the Office of the Attorney General of Guam for the past three years, said she has always had a desire to help others, which is what led her to pursue the career she enjoys today and come up with the idea for an outreach event.

So instead of letting go of her concern for the children in Guam, Cruz connected with work colleague Mariana Crisostomo and decided to take action. Crisostomo’s mother, Leann, owned the restaurant Fizz & Co., known for serving gourmet hot dogs with a variety of toppings, and so the pair approached her about organizing an event to feed children and families in need. They posted information about the event on social media and soon had growing interest from others who wanted to help. Even The Guam Daily Post covered the event in advance.

Cruz and Crisostomo distribute free lunches.

On March 19, Cruz, Crisostomo, and her mother organized the lunch event, giving away free 50 bagged lunches that day, which included a hot dog, bag of chips, bottled water, and fruit.

“We had people driving from the end of the island all the way up to get the lunch,” Cruz said.

After the event, the pair gave away an additional 50 to 60 lunches by curbside delivery and then partnered with nonprofit Mañelu, which provides mentoring programs for youth and families, to deliver an additional 150 meals to children in need across Guam.

Cruz said that the experience was incredibly rewarding. “The people who came out were really appreciative and thoughtful,” Cruz said. “They asked if they could bring some meals back to other members of their families.”

While the event was a one-time endeavor, Cruz said it served as an inspiration to others in the community. Shortly after, she noticed that other restaurants and businesses started to do similar events to help the community. It also was not too long after that the Guam Department of Education opened its own grab-and-go lunch program for students.

Cruz said that her desire to help others has always been a part of who she is a person. During her time at Saint Leo University, she interned at the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office to learn more about the work of being a victim advocate and even volunteered as a teacher’s assistant for the child development center at Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Land O’ Lakes, FL. 

Today, she is pursuing her master’s degree in criminal justice through the university’s Center for Online Learning. Her goal is to advance into a career that will allow her to work in forensics and criminal investigations.

While work, family, and studies occupy much of Cruz’s time today, her spirit of service is still present. Cruz shared that she and her husband have recently started a new outreach effort: Every Sunday at noon they go around to different areas of the island and hand out lunches to the homeless.

“My husband and I recognized that there is a need for the homeless on the island,” Cruz said. “It is a difficult time for everyone right now, but by giving out free lunch to those in need, it lifts a small burden off of their shoulders.”