Dr. Jeffrey SeneseDear community,

One of the things I have enjoyed the most about being the father of two is the opportunity to see my children learn and grow over the years. I can remember the excitement on their faces when they first learned to walk, play soccer, and start reading. As they grew older, I marveled at how they took initiative in cultivating their own unique talents and abilities. From their time as infants, to their teenage years and every day as young adults, learning happened quickly and often. It was a central part of their lives.

There is something special about the way in which children learn that I think is important for us to hold on to as a society. Children possess an innate joy and love of learning and are not afraid to pursue an interest that excites them. Yes, they may face challenges on their journey and get discouraged. But when they fall down, they also get right back up, sometimes with a little help and encouragement from a loving parent.

At Saint Leo University, we have an insatiable love of learning, and we want our students to cultivate this love, too, for its many benefits. A relentless passion for learning leads to a richer and more fulfilling life with greater opportunities. We become more well-rounded individuals when we have an understanding of our history, our government, and theoretical principles whose applications have led to scientific and medical discoveries. We grow when we explore new ways of doing things or acquire new skills.

Our fall issue of Spirit Magazine delves into a few of the many examples of Saint Leo University faculty, students, and alumni who share a love of learning and express their enthusiasm in laudable ways. You’ll read about several Saint Leo alumni who have earned top honors for their work in education, as well as learn about a new partnership that is helping the university educate more people.

I hope these stories serve as inspiration for you to continue to make learning an integral part of your life. Some say that as we grow older, there is less we need to learn. I tend to disagree. I think as we progress through life, our responsibility for learning expands. The challenge lies in making it a priority in one’s life.

Peace and may God bless.


Jeffrey D. Senese, Ph.D.

The Guilamo family including dad Harold, new student Katelyn, mom Gloria, and brother Joshua, of Bradenton, FL, take a break during move-in day at Saint Leo on August 28.

The university welcomed its largest number of new students for the Fall 2021 Semester at Saint Leo’s residential campus in Pasco County, FL. 

This year, more than 1,100 new campus students joined the Saint Leo community, a number that surpasses the size of the Fall 2019 and Fall 2020 classes, previously the largest and second-largest in the institution’s 132-year history. The number of new students (undergraduate and graduate combined) at University Campus has steadily increased, with a drop in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The new Lions were selected from 11,977 applicants, the largest application pool in Saint Leo’s history. This year’s applications rose 81 percent over the previous year and can be attributed to new academic programs, the D2R Program, the Tuition Advantage Program as well as the Catholic Promise Scholarship and other new financial aid programs. 

And there is a lot of international flavor on campus this year, as Saint Leo welcomed its largest international class with new students from 50 countries. 

Of the new students at University Campus, 59 percent are from Florida; 16 percent are from out of state; and 25 percent are from international countries. 

“I’m excited for new experiences, beginning my education, and working toward my goals,” said Katelyn Guilamo as she moved in to her residence hall on August 28. A freshman, Guilamo is majoring in early childhood education. She chose Saint Leo University because, “I like the environment and the smaller classes. You get more one-on-one attention.”

Her mother, Gloria Guilamo said she was feeling a little anxious about Katelyn moving away. “But she’s got the wings, and I’m letting her fly,” Gloria Guilamo said. “This is for her education
and for her future.”

What do you get when you cross a love of animals with a love of learning? Saint Leo University faculty members created the Interdisciplinary Approaches to Therapy and Service Animals course in 2017, and it now is being offered for its sixth semester.

Social work, education, human services, and criminal justice faculty teach this course, which provides an overview of human-animal interactions and the human-animal bond, and how those affect animals, society, and the work of those in “helping careers.”

Faculty members who are wild about animals combined their talents, knowledge, and research to create this popular course. Students learn about the social, physical, and emotional/psychological effects of human-animal interactions with interdisciplinary helping professions; educational benefits; therapeutic roles of animals; ethical and animal welfare considerations; and the connection between violence toward people and violence toward animals.

Saint Leo students get hands-on experience working with animals in various capacities. While dogs seem to be the most popular, they also work with other animals. In addition to University Campus, the course has been offered at the Ocala Education Center.

‘Dear Charlotte’ Helps Children

Dr. Rhondda Waddell, the course professor, sits with Joshua Hoffman reviewing their finished children’s book, “Dear Charlotte’s Story”
A page from Dear Charlotte’s Story: A Coloring Book

Last year, students even created a children’s coloring book, Dear Charlotte’s Story: A Coloring Book, and an accompanying website, Dear Charlotte, The Saint Leo Pig, based on one of Dr. Rhondda Waddell’s pigs. “This project came about after I was given a mini pig that no longer was living her best life,” said Waddell, associate dean of the College of Education and Social Services.

“During the course of the class, the students decided to create the website and book as a class activity,” she said.

“Then as a result of the COVID-19 restrictions on class attendance in-person, they wanted to offer something more that children could do while home on their computers that might put their minds at ease and distract them from the restrictions of confinement and generalized worry that comes from social distancing.”

And who can resist an adorable mini pig? “Anyone can enjoy the heartwarming story of Charlotte finding her forever home, and her interest in helping others,” Waddell said. Everyone can “enjoy her words of comfort and the joyful pictures of her animal friends.”

Charlotte the pig
Charlotte the pig in her summer bonnet

Illustrator of the book, Adrien Valez

Then-student Joshua Hoffman ’21, a criminal justice major, was the author while Adrien Velez, 11-year-old brother of social work major Yulissa Velez, drew illustrations for the children’s coloring book. Then-students Allison Daul ’21 (biology major); Mike Simmons ’20 (criminal justice major); Jessica Skrelunas ’21 (psychology major); and Velez created a website using Wix.com to showcase the little pig.

“She lives with her newfound dog siblings, and sister, Cherry Moon Pie, who is another pig!” the website states in the “About Charlotte” section. “Charlotte is a happy girl who has gone through challenges just like me and you. We will share her advice and adventures with all of you!”

For author Hoffman, working on the Dear Charlotte project was a fun idea that “quickly became real,” he said. “Reflecting on the experience, what means the most to me is that we, in a unique way, took some of the core concepts of the class and applied them to the real world,” Hoffman said. “Service and therapy animals are very effective when supporting someone in an educational environment, and the same excitement and enthusiasm we had for Charlotte can now hopefully contribute to a child’s reading and writing skills through the Dear Charlotte project.”

‘Field Trips’ Still Part of the Plan

Dr. Jodi Lamb with horse at the Emerald M Therapeutic Riding Center

While holding classes online was challenging, Saint Leo’s faculty members made sure students had a great experience. “In terms of class field trips, we had planned for a visit to the Emerald M Therapeutic Riding Center,” Waddell said. “I went with another faculty member from education, Dr. Jodi Lamb, and filmed the entire tour with Emerald M director Lisa Michaelangelo, and it was awesome. I embedded the video into Prezi to share in class. Surprisingly, I received a complimentary email from Prezi saying it was a valuable video and addressed the COVID-19 ramifications on the farm, and that was a valuable learning experience.”

Special guests and their beloved animals were welcomed via Zoom. “We missed touching them, but it was still fulfilling to have this encounter with the animals and their handlers,” Waddell said.

The interdisciplinary class features many types of animal interactions and therapies from K-9 officers to equine therapy, and from therapy-service dogs for veterans to search and rescue animals.

Several faculty members shared their experiences from interdisciplinary perspectives. For example, Dr. Mike Campbell, associate professor of social work, spoke about his research in hospitals regarding volunteers and their therapy animals’ relationships to their volunteer work, and Dr. Debra Mims, associate professor of criminal justice, spoke about her work as a police officer with equines and her dog behavior training work.

Mims taught the course in Spring 2021. The owner of eight dogs, she knows the benefits the canines offer. Her dissertation described the use of therapy dogs to help victimized children talk about abuse. Mims’ animals include therapy, agility, obedience, and critical incident stress management team dogs, as well as Pasco County (FL) family court dogs. Mims also is the therapy dog liaison for the Region 5 Tampa Bay Critical Incident Stress Management Team, which responds in crisis situations.

“I definitely think this is a worthwhile course for students,” Mims said. “We discuss that as humans, we all have certain needs that must be met for us to be healthy: physically, mentally, and emotionally. Animals make great therapists, and we discuss how they can aid mental health issues, and the scientific findings that link mental well-being to the presence of animals.” 

This Fall Semester, the course is being taught by Dr. Ospina-Kammerer (Dr. VOK), professor of social work. The College of Education and Social Services faculty plan on writing more children’s books, focusing on social justice issues and helping children overcome challenges.

On July 29, Saint Leo University signed an agreement to merge with Marymount California University, following a vote from the university’s board of trustees.

Pending regulatory and accreditation approvals, this agreement will unite the two Catholic, values-based institutions together under the Saint Leo University name, helping to provide students everywhere with a quality education. Marymount California University is in Rancho Palos Verdes, CA, nearly 2,500 miles from University Campus.

“There is value that comes from two universities working together to create something powerful for our students,” University President Jeffrey Senese said. “Working with Marymount, Saint Leo University looks forward to making an even more meaningful impact on Catholic higher education from coast to coast.” 

This first merger for Saint Leo is expected to offer many benefits for both institutions, providing students with more degree program options and internship opportunities, around-the-clock support for students studying online, and more university location options to consider attending, among other benefits.

Senese said Marymount California and the area surrounding it are a good fit for Saint Leo, as it serves first-generation college students, Catholics, Hispanics, and military students.Saint Leo and Marymount California Leaders

The university is in the process of gaining regulatory approvals to move forward with merging Marymount into Saint Leo as one institution. While the two institutions work to develop these plans, an immediate next step will be to work to allow new students at Marymount an immediate opportunity to consider additional degree programs.

As two universities rooted in the Catholic tradition, focused on the future for students, this newly unified community will offer an innovative, values-based learning environment inspired by individuals in pursuit of a greater purpose.

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 micro@saintleo.edu or visit saintleo.edu/micro-credentials.