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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.

Thank you to all those who gave to the Day For Saint Leo giving campaign on February 7. A total of 597 donors helped raise $162,356 in just one day for our university! This equates to a 65 percent increase in dollars raised over last year. This success will go a long way to advance Saint Leo University’s life-changing purpose, and we couldn’t have done it without you.

Day for Saint Leo - By the Numbers

Throughout the fall and winter, Saint Leo faculty members shared their knowledge and insights with a variety of media outlets and audiences—from newspapers and television stations to group talks. Here are a few highlights of appearances and media reporting featuring our faculty.

In September, faculty member Dr. Tammy Zacchilli was quoted extensively in three articles on the digital feature news site FamilyMinded.com. As an associate professor of psychology, Zacchilli shared advice for parents on the art of disciplining children, typical fears of toddlers, and what to consider before expanding a family.

In November, faculty member Dr. Gianna Russo appeared on WEDU’s That’s All I’m Saying with Tampa Bay Times columnist Ernest Hooper. Russo talked about nurturing Tampa area authors during the 30-minute program on regional public television. The assistant professor of English and creative writing also will soon release her new book, One House Down, a collection of poems published by Madville Publishing.

Dr. Keith Jones, associate professor of marketing, shared insights on a Saint Leo University Polling Institute survey regarding holiday shopping on Thanksgiving Day and whether stores benefitted from being open (or closed) on the holiday. His commentary appeared in American City Business Journals’ publications across the nation. He also participated in a Facebook live interview for Saint Leo alumni on the same topic.

Dr. Jenenne Valentino-Bottaro, an adjunct faculty member at the Ocala Education Center, participated in a November television interview with WCJB-TV, ABC 20, in Ocala about animal-assisted therapy. Valentine-Bottaro teaches human services courses in the College of Education & Social Services and is the co-founder of the Human-Animal Interconnectedness Institute.

In January, social work faculty member Dr. Lisa Rapp-McCall was interviewed by Tampa Bay area television stations WTVT-TV, FOX 13, and WFLA-TV, NBC News Channel 8, about research conducted by the Saint Leo Polling Institute on human trafficking. That same month, Rapp-McCall and colleague Dr. Robert Lucio presented the polling institute’s survey data on human trafficking during a panel discussion hosted by the Tampa Downtown Partnership.

Families form in a variety of ways. Some members are born, while others are sought. Some members are inherited, and some are a surprise.

Within the Saint Leo community is an array of blended families. There are faculty and staff who commit to taking students under their wings, ensuring their success and well-being, and students who take care of one another.

Here, we profile the matriarchs of three such families in the Saint Leo community.

Ms. Evon, giver of hugs, drier of tears, Lions cheerleader

Ms. Evon

Great people, great children come through the doors of Saint Leo, said Ephonia McCobb, or “Ms. Evon” as she’s known to the Saint Leo community. A housekeeper in Facilities Management, McCobb takes care of the Marion Bowman Activities Center and its many student-athletes, coaches, and staff.

No one is a stranger to McCobb. Everyone is greeted with a hug and wished well with a “have a blessed day.”

At the Marion Bowman Activities Center, where she began working in 2006, McCobb does more than take care of housekeeping. She takes care of Saint Leo’s student-athletes as if they were her own children. And she takes care of their families, too, reassuring them that their children will be just fine at Saint Leo.

“There is one student, Mary, and her parents dropped her off in August,” McCobb recalled. “They were in the hallway crying. Her daddy was crying harder than her mama. I asked why. He said, ‘We’re dropping off my daughter.’ He said, ‘I just dropped my son off to the Marines last month.’”

“I told them they had done a wonderful job!” she continued. “They got their children to a good place. I asked if we could pray about it, and we did. And then I told them to go get their date night back!”

She offers student-athletes advice on life, dries their tears, and gives them hugs. “I am proud of all of them,” McCobb said. “I tell them that when they leave Saint Leo, if they see someone who is going down the wrong path, they need to take five minutes to talk to them about what they need to be doing, and then tell them ‘have a blessed day.’ Perhaps you might touch someone.”

Nancy Cheek, virtual communicator, career coach extraordinaire

McCobb’s impact on the lives of student-athletes has not gone unnoticed. “Ms. Evon is the epitome of our core value of community,” said Brad Jorgensen, head men’s lacrosse coach. “Almost every young man I have recruited has been greeted with a hug and a loud ‘welcome to the Saint Leo family!’ from Ms. Evon.”

Nancy Cheek

For nearly four years, Nancy Cheek has worked to create a close-knit community where no physical community exists. As associate director of Career Services, she helps hundreds of students each year with their career needs—no matter where they live—most times never meeting face to face.

“What I look forward to is when students tell me they are coming to graduation,” Cheek said. “After having developed a relationship with them remotely, it is so exciting to finally meet them in person.”

With a large portion of Saint Leo students attending school online or at education centers across the United States, Cheek is passionate about ensuring remote students feel supported in achieving their careers goals. While not able to physically be with them, she uses email, photographs, social media, video conferencing, phone calls, and online webinars to build relationships across the Internet.

“Our goal is to make online students feel like they are part of a community without ever coming into an office,” Cheek said.

Countless students have thanked Cheek for her support. She recalls the story of a student who decided to attend Saint Leo after retiring from a 20-year career in the military. He lived in a remote part of Florida and needed help assessing career options.

“I just want to say thank you again for all the helpful guidance you gave me,” wrote the student. “You said I did all the hard work, but I never really felt like I was doing it alone.” After working together for some time, the student Cheek helped was able to land a job with a government agency.

“I live for the days when I get an email or phone call that says, ‘Hey, I just got a job offer,’” Cheek said. “That is why I do what I do.”

Dr. Joanne Roberts, professor, advisor, retired public school teacher and principal

Dr. Joanne Roberts with spring 2018 scholarship recipient, Justina Guptill.

Every spring and fall, a new group of transfer students in their 20s and 30s enroll in the education program at the Gainesville Education Center in central Florida. The future elementary and middle school teachers form cohorts as they make their way together toward their teaching degrees.

They attend rigorous classes four nights a week while holding down full- or part-time jobs to pay expenses. Luckily, they enjoy the kinship they develop within their cohorts and benefit individually and collectively from the benevolent leadership of Dr. Joanne “Tippy” Roberts, professor, advisor, and retired public school system teacher and principal. Roberts says she understands why the classes become close-knit. These young adults—often the first in their families to attend college—receive moral support from one another as they proceed through a tough curriculum.

“Our cohorts sometimes spend more time with each other than with their own families,” Roberts said. So her approach incorporates two philosophies. The first is that the program at the center will create a sense of belonging for all committed education students. The second is that the student kinship can be nurtured into professional collegiality that will serve them well in their careers.

“Family is a good word,” Roberts said of the center environment for the education students. “It’s a learning community, but it’s a learning family. We work together, and we learn together.”

Recent middle grades education graduate Justina Guptill ’18 affirms that “the education program is special all in its own because you really get to know your professors and classmates. You spend so much time as a cohort, it becomes impossible to do anything other than care for the people around you and help in their successes as well as your own. Dr. Roberts put together a very caring faculty to help create the family atmosphere throughout the entire program!” The faculty she is referring to includes adjunct instructors and professors Roberts hired and supervises to teach the education courses in Gainesville. The adjuncts are a vital part of the family, as well.

Given Roberts’ multiple responsibilities, it is difficult to quantify the impact she has made during her years at Saint Leo. By her own count, Roberts estimates she has worked with 450 undergraduate and graduate students in various educational programs at the center.

Although Roberts considers teaching the hardest job in the world, second only to being a parent, she said she cannot imagine doing anything else with her life or finding a deeper sense of fulfillment in any other learning environment.

“During the 15 years I have worked at Saint Leo, I have become a better educator and gained more from my students and colleagues than I ever learned from textbooks.”

With most Americans spending the majority of their waking hours at work, colleagues can start to become like family. There are work wives and work husbands, brothers and sisters, and even second moms and dads in the workplace.

For some Saint Leo alumni, the definition of a work family takes on added meaning. At PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), many alumni continue to experience Saint Leo’s family-like culture by working together at the Tampa location of the multinational professional services firm, which focuses on audit and assurance, tax, and consulting services. The relationship started with one student about 10 years ago.

Dr. Passard Dean, professor of accounting and finance at Saint Leo, was looking for a way to provide more internship and job opportunities for students. When one student was able to secure a full-time position at PwC after graduation, he asked if she would be willing to help recommend other qualified graduates for jobs.

“All it took was one student who was willing to help make Saint Leo a better place,” Dean said. “Because of her willingness to help, countless students have benefited.”

Left to right, Kara Ennis ’18, Ashley Dudney ’18, Johana Beltran-Cantu ’15

Today Saint Leo participates in a unique internship program with PwC. Dean and Dr. Daniel Tschopp, professor of accounting, work with recruiters from PwC to identify students for its internship program, which often leads to full-time employment after graduation. Each year about eight to 10 seniors participate, receiving exposure to accounting work in a variety of sectors.

Kara Ennis ’18, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in accounting this spring, is one of them.  After graduation, her internship led to a full-time position working with several other Saint Leo alumni.

“It is nice because we were able to come into the organization and already know some familiar faces,” Ennis said. “I didn’t feel out of place. We have each others’ backs, and everyone is so willing to help.”

Ashley Dudney ’18, who also graduated with Ennis and received a bachelor’s degree in accounting, works next to Ennis in the office. She has a Saint Leo alumna as her supervisor, Johana Beltran-Cantu ’15.

“Having a supervisor who went to the same school as you is helpful,” Dudney said. “She knows the curriculum we learned and understands what it was like to go through the program. It’s also inspiring. I look at her and think, ‘That could be me in two years.’”

Beltran-Cantu, who has been with PwC for three years, agrees with Dudney about the value of working with other alumni. She says there’s something special about Saint Leo graduates when it comes to work ethic. They stand out in a crowd.

“If you earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting at Saint Leo, then I know you had to work hard to be where you are today,” Beltran-Cantu said.

While they may all have different job responsibilities at PwC, Ennis, Dudney, and Beltran-Cantu all agree that working with other alumni adds a special touch to their daily work.

“It’s very much like a community, which is a Saint Leo value,” Dudney said. “We’re all used to living the Saint Leo values and that translates to how we work together here.”

When Saint Leo University celebrated its 125-year anniversary in 2014, Dr. Heather Parker contributed to the commemoration by starting a local oral history project that focused on people and families who were involved with Saint Leo down through the generations. This work parallels her own, more focused scholarly research into the relationship between African-Americans living locally, who were generally from Protestant congregations, and the distinctly Catholic Saint Leo.

Dr. Heather Parker with a visual display of some of her research into Saint Leo’s early history.

Among Parker’s recorded interviews is one with Gloria Billings Roberts, who had been a Saint Leo student and employee. Her husband, Levy Roberts, was also a Saint Leo employee. Roberts grew up in the local area and attended public schools during an era of mandatory integration. Her family, the Billingses, lived nearby and had many employment connections with Saint Leo. Roberts even worked part time in the girl’s cafeteria from 1967 to 1970 while in high school. It is worth knowing that during Roberts’ childhood, it was the norm for many public schools locally to be segregated. Integration in some areas in Florida and elsewhere came about as late as 1970, prompted by a court order. The atmosphere at campus apparently differed from other environs, though. Roberts entered Saint Leo College in 1970.

Parker, now associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, asked Roberts about her college experience and about the personal and family connections with Saint Leo over many years for the oral history project.

HP: When you started at Saint Leo as a student in 1970, how many other black kids were enrolled as students, do you think?
GR: Wasn’t many. Not many of us there. In fact, I’m trying to think, did I know anybody? If there were, they were on the athletic team, and I didn’t have them … all my friends were white because at that time there wasn’t that many.
HP: But you made friends just fine. They accepted you?
GR: They accepted me just fine. Because we had the orientation, we got to meet each other whatever the case may be and there were classes. That group just jelled because that group was from the North anyway, and they were more open.
HP: What was your maiden name?
GR: Billings.
HP: So you mentioned your grandfather, who was the [orange] grove keeper.
GR: For Burkes and Burkes. His name was Frank McCoy.
HP: So Frank McCoy was your grandfather, and he worked for the Burkes?
GR: He was their grove keeper, or their foreman as they call it. In fact, we lived on the property there, right behind the college.
HP: So the Burkeses owned that grove—so it wasn’t the groves the monks kept. But (your grandfather) got to know Father Marion [Bowman], and Father Marion said ‘You have this granddaughter …’
GR: Well, his daughter. I was raised by him.
HP: And Father Marion said ‘When your daughter is ready, she can come to college,’ and he let you come basically for a song. For whatever you could pay.
GR: Books. That’s all I paid, was for books.
HP: And that’s an important story, it’s what I needed to hear because we wanted to find out the connections between the college (in whatever its forms) and the community. And your mother worked for the Montessori school with the nuns. And when did that start? Was this your grandmother?
GR: No, this was my mother. My grandmother [laughter], my grandmother worked for the Abbey. She was a cook for the Abbey.
HP: For the girls, or the nuns?
GR: No, not for the nuns, for the monks.
HP: And that was while you were growing up?
GR: Yeah, because she was there when I was in college. [My mother] also worked as a cook with my grandmother there at the Abbey. She worked there for a while as a cook, but then the nuns needed a cook, so my grandma sent her over there with the nuns. So she was a cook over at the nuns, and then they needed someone to go over to the day care, so they sent her to the day care.
HP: You were right. These connections run deep and everywhere.
GR: Basically, we’ve been around. Our family has been pretty much around with the college because of the fact that we lived right there. There was a house back in there we used to live in, so that connection was there so whenever they needed something when we were there …Father Marion would tell Daddy, and Daddy would come home and say they need this or that, or whatever the case may be, and that’s what would happen.

With the availability of genealogy tools for the public’s use and prime-time television shows about people exploring their lineages, more people are becoming aware that their relatives lives’ reflect history and that the stories of everyday people are worth knowing and sharing.

Holiday gatherings can provide an opportunity to have meaningful conversations with older family members about their formative years and family history. One of Saint Leo’s history professors, Dr. Heather Parker, was interviewed last year about ways people can ask relatives to share recollections.

Fruitful conversations resemble oral histories, which Parker is experienced in collecting using formal methods. But everyone, she said, can use some common interviewing techniques to engage with older relatives even if no book, archive, or collection is planned. Her advice circulated nationally in fall 2017 through an Associated Press story that included her as a source.

Parker recommended that interested parties ask family members in advance to bring photos to the next get-together, with a promise to handle them gently. If you can, she said, bring a portable scanner to preserve digital images of the photographs, or use a smart phone with adequate memory to do so. A magnifying glass will be handy, too, she said, because details from the backgrounds in the photos might give clues about the time-period and location in which the photo was taken.

When it comes to personal stories that people may tell, Parker advised listeners against being visibly shocked if any disturbing information is disclosed as this could discourage the relative from continuing to tell the story. She also cautioned against prying or being too pushy if people don’t want to go into details, as older generations in America might have a different sense of privacy than their younger counterparts.

On her website africanamericanpasco.org, Parker dispenses even more guidance for those who want to conduct detailed research, perhaps beyond the boundaries of their own families. For instance, she conducted research on African-American families who live currently or lived in prior generations around University Campus in Pasco County, FL. Theirs is a little-represented history. Many groups including African-Americans have not been included in national or local history books and were overlooked by city or community newspapers, but Parker employed recommended historical methods to help address the void.

Her website even includes a link to a site providing consent forms for people willing to provide interviews that can be formally archived. Parker also discusses on the website ways to find and approach interview subjects, as well as the related use of photographs, census records, and other types of records and documents.


Dr. Heather Parker has offered this photo from her own family to illustrate ways that descendants can delve into their history through images. This photo shows Parker’s grandmother, Isabelle, on the left, and Isabelle’s sister Ruth on the right. They are both single young ladies in this photo. The cars in the background, as well as the purses, outfits, and hairstyles are clues that this was taken in the 1940s. And the fact that the young ladies are leaning against the tree informally rather than standing upright indicates the image was not taken by a parent or authority figure, but someone they were comfortable with and maybe out for a bit of fun.

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.

Everyone knows that wry saying about becoming a parent: You have to pass a test to get a driver’s license, but not to become a biological mother or father.

While that is still true, some Saint Leo students have had the option of getting some excellent grounding in the topic (with tests) through an undergraduate course called the Psychology of Parenting. It is a junior-level course, developed by Dr. Tammy L. Zacchilli, associate professor of psychology, after discussion among several peers in the discipline from various Saint Leo teaching locations. She has taught it four times so far, every other fall, at University Campus. The class typically fills up, or nearly does.

Dr. Tammy Zacchilli, a mother of three herself, has hopes of extending the course to more Saint Leo students by developing an online version in the near future.
Psychology faculty knew the course would help students who want to become parents at some point in life. Another group that stands to benefit are those who intend to go into teaching, social work, or another kind of helping profession, she points out. “Their jobs may require them to work with parents.”

For some reason, Zacchilli found there were only a few sound textbooks available on the topic—though she notes with caution for other readers that anyone can write a book on parenting without broad knowledge of the theories on how children develop psychologically. Still, she hunted until she found one and supplements the reading with videos, interactive assignments, speakers from child-related occupations, class discussions, and a required service project.

The class lends itself to being divided into three segments, she said. In the first part, the class reads and discusses what psychologists have written about parenting and discipline styles. Students are generally eager to talk about this and compare experiences. Even though most at University Campus have not yet had children, they think back to their own families and have positive exchanges about how different cultures and backgrounds play a role, she said.

“We have students from a lot of different places,” she reflects. Students from the Caribbean, for instance, may have experiences that contrast with those of students from the mainland United States.

The second portion of the course is devoted to understanding child development, and the third to special situations that include adoption, high-risk families, and same-sex parenting.

Emma Hutterli ’16 particularly recalls an assignment with a delicate prop. Students were given actual chicken eggs (with the inside liquid blown out) to carry for a week as stand-ins for infants, meaning they were not to leave the eggs unattended. It was “light-hearted, but the class took it seriously,” recalled Hutterli, who is now studying for the Master of Social Work degree from Saint Leo.

“We then talked about that experience: for example, how was it to ask for a babysitter, what was it like taking the eggs to class/home/the store, did any of the eggs break over the time period?” She still has her phone photo of her decorated egg.

It has been said, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

During the next three years, Saint Leo University will enter into a period of renaissance that will redefine how the 21st century university prepares students for success. These bold plans will help build a strong foundation from which Saint Leo can expand and reach new heights.


By the Numbers

Saint Leo University is a leader in providing a superior educational experience to students wherever they live and study.

Nearly 12,000

students from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, three U.S. territories, and more than 90 countries

35

teaching locations in seven states, or online anywhere

52

undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral degree programs

More than 93,000

alumni in all 50 states, District of Columbia, three U.S. territories, and 76 countries

3 academic colleges

the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Education and Social Services, and the Donald R. Tapia College of Business

Culture

We will invest in a high-performance leadership culture.

Saint Leo faculty and staff are the backbone of the university, facilitating a rich learning environment for our students. Investing in their professional development and recruiting high-performing talent will allow the university to develop an educational experience that puts the needs of students first. This will include implementing a more robust student advisory model and introducing new technology to support learning.

Academics

We will transform the student experience, ensuring they are at the center of every decision.

The future of Saint Leo will include stronger, more robust degree programs, while introducing new programs with market demand. The university also will strengthen student activities and create programs that allow students to thrive during their time with us. This will include introducing unique honors, military/veteran, and athletics programs that support the success of these groups.

Growth

Growth

We will seek opportunities for student-centered innovation and growth.

During the next few years, Saint Leo University will expand its reach in new and emerging markets and revitalize our brand recognition. This will require us to increase our footprint across the country and travel internationally to introduce Saint Leo to global prospective students. Saint Leo’s values are highly desired, and it will take investments from all of our supporters to make this growth possible.

Saint Leo feels like family because I can truly relate the traditions and values of the university to my own upbringing and family morals. At home, we respect and support one another with a ‘we are all in this together’ attitude. When I was a student and now as an active alumna, I have that same feeling—a spirit of unity, every time I step onto campus, visit with alumni, or meet with staff. And I know I always will.”
— Ann Marie Lombardi ’77

“Saint Leo feels like family because of its genuinely good-natured people. Nowhere else can you go and find such a warm-hearted and welcoming community; that is a direct reflection of Saint Leo’s core values being instilled into its students, faculty, and staff. As a student and now as an alumnus, Saint Leo continues to be that amicable family I can always confide in and reach out to for help.”
— Luckson Abraham ’16

“Saint Leo feels like a family because the university always welcomes us home where lifelong friendships were formed and bonded, incredible memories deeply entrenched, and lives transformed and forever impacted by the opportunities that we were afforded. Simply put, I am who I am today, both personally and professionally, because of Saint Leo
University.”
— Greg Greiwe ’80

“Saint Leo feels like family because we enjoy a laugh, a tear, and loads of work. I was taken aback at a regional spotlight event on campus as it was all about India. Home didn’t feel far away. I may struggle to complete my syllabus, but there is always help around. Saint Leo gave me a beautiful opportunity to be a member of the alumni board, as a student representative. I enjoy our meetings especially when we meet my ‘Gang of Lion Kings.’ It was wonderful to watch Saint Leo from the outside; but being involved from inside is even more rewarding.”
— Akshita Sahgal ’19

“Saint Leo feels like family because we all share a common set of core values and experiences. All our lives have changed and have been impacted by our experiences and education at Saint Leo and whenever I am with other alumni, I always feel like we are ‘in it together.’ We share our experiences and core values in our interactions with the world.”
— Laura Chirichigno ’10, ’12

There are so many ways to look at a plate of food on a table or well-stocked shelves in a supermarket.

Some people are concerned about their diets and whether they are getting enough nutrients or too many calories. Some people working in nonprofits and in certain kinds of church ministries worry about people who are not reliably receiving food. And those who produce and harvest the food in our globalized economy have a range of other decisions and concerns to consider, from farming regulations to pricing policies.

A new three-credit course called Feeding the Planet: Challenges and Opportunities in the 21st Century gives undergraduates a rich mixture of all those ingredients and more. Dr. Patricia Campion (pictured) designed the sophomore-level course and taught it for the first time during the recent fall semester at University Campus. Eventually, the course option will be widely available, as it can be taught online and at education centers.

Further, Feeding the Planet is part of the University Explorations curriculum, a choice among the group of courses that form the liberal arts foundation required of all Saint Leo undergraduates. One of the hallmarks of a University Explorations course is that it takes a focused, topical approach to an intriguing area—like food—and delves deeply into the material so that students come to see how scholars approach the larger questions, which in this case, involve agricultural economics, nutrition, public health, and sustainability.

“To me, the planting was the most interesting part,” sophomore Giovanni Thomas said during the last half of the course, in reference to a class requirement to grow an edible plant. Dr. Campion’s students were able to share the planting beds and greenhouse typically used by Saint Leo biology students. They kept an academic journal about their plantings, somewhat in the way previous generations kept garden almanacs. Thomas, for instance, grew green beans. He and his classmates tracked watering, pests, and growth patterns, and provided photographic evidence of their attempts. A failed “crop” of a stunted zucchini or eggplant, or withered tomatoes did not result in a failing grade on the project, as long as the student was vigilant in the growing attempt and observation process.

This was literally new territory for many, “connecting students with the fact that their food comes from somewhere” and not just a supermarket, Dr. Campion said. Thomas was one of the few in the class of 10 with gardening experience. Some were initially reluctant to handle the soil. Still, by the end of the semester, several students excelled with the journals.

In another assignment, students reviewed their regular diet to identify something that might be problematic for their health (not just weight-wise), if not currently, then at some point in the future. Their regular diet was to include meals out, pre-made meals from supermarkets, fast-food meals, dining hall meals, and meals prepared at home. Dr. Campion further instructed them to research thoroughly an alternative that could be substituted, at least part of the time, and to explain their decisions in a brief paper.

The students were required to go far beyond the personal research, though, in keeping with the expectations that University Explorations courses also introduce students to probative, scholarly questions. So students took what they learned about food and nutrition personally and integrated that into readings and discussions about food production brought to scale. That meant understanding food in relation to local and global cultures, conceiving of crops as commodities that are traded on international markets, and relating agricultural practices and policies to economic and ecological considerations. (Sustainability considerations are also studied in other Arts and Sciences courses, such as Environmental Sociology, a science course called Creating Sustainable Societies, and offerings within the Global Studies Program.) It didn’t end there. The course delineated the packaging, distribution, marketing, and advertising processes that all play a part in bringing harvested foods and meals directly to consumers.

Through this, Thomas said that during the course he noticed for the first time how much he was influenced by television commercials for fast foods, enough to make him think he was hungry. “That was his ‘aha’ moment,” Dr. Campion observed. Another student, one from a family with a home garden, came to her own organic realization and told her professor that “now she wasn’t going to complain when her dad asked her to weed the garden.”

More substantively, Dr. Campion described her aspirations for the students in greater detail.

“I hope that the students have learned from this experience not to take their food for granted, and to value not only its nutritional content, but also the work and care of all the people involved in its production,” she said. “In the future, I’m looking forward to expanding the planting activity, so that we can end the course by cooking the food we have grown during the semester.”

Choosing Wellness, a required course offered each semester at University Campus, teaches students just that—how to make choices for wellness. The course was developed by Dr. Joanne Crossman (pictured), professor of education, who is entering her 30th year of teaching in higher education.

Dr. Crossman found her way to Saint Leo University after about 23 years of teaching education and research at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, RI. Intrigued by Saint Leo for a number of reasons, she most loved that it is a teaching institution that focuses on students, active learning, and creating a realistic and utilitarian curriculum.

When interviewing at Saint Leo, she was asked to teach the existing two-credit version of the course. Seeing lots of potential and an opportunity to put her passion for curriculum development to work, she was encouraged by Dr. Candace Roberts, then chair of the Education Department, to re-create the course. Dr. Crossman developed it into a three-credit course, primarily meant for freshmen and sophomore students, that provides a comprehensive understanding of the physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and interpersonal aspects of wellness.

Now in its fifth year, the course emphasizes the view of the body as a process rather than an object, as well as the importance of taking ownership of and responsibility for individual health. Students come to understand that the choices they make now can affect their health in the future, such as mitigating diseases that run in their families.

“There’s so much choice in the course,” explained Dr. Crossman. “When a student says, ‘I have to do this anyway so let me do something I care about,’ that’s when the class matters.”

Students typically see the course’s relevance as they mature. Dr. Crossman hears from former students who have made connections and applied what they learned in the course to their own lives, or who have engaged their family and friends with what they’ve taken from the curriculum.

“The growth comes from students recognizing that they know themselves best, what might motivate or hinder them, and then being willing to implement strategies for a more healthful lifestyle,” Dr. Crossman said. “Through the development of SMART* goals and holding themselves accountable for working toward or achieving those goals, students realize that they can’t fool themselves when it comes to their improved health.”

Dr. Crossman shared that she has noticed the impacts of the course around campus in students eating more healthfully and discovering fun ways to stay active. Additionally, she told the story of a former student informing her that he had recognized his own anaphylaxis (allergic reaction) because of symptoms he learned about in Choosing Wellness, and knew to seek immediate help.

Going beyond health and nutrition, Choosing Wellness courses are all attended once by a representative from Green Dot, a Saint Leo-affiliated program aimed at ending personal violence. Dr. Crossman hopes that introducing students to causes such as Green Dot will feed their passions and encourage them to become “health ambassadors.”

In the future, she hopes to help students identify health problems on campus and give them the opportunity to create mini-campaigns as a class project. Another future goal is to develop a course dedicated to women’s health, delving into confidence, image, and physiology.

*SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-limited.

The program emerged from community outreach done by the late Kurt Van Wilt, a longtime professor of English at Saint Leo University Campus. Dr. Wilt recognized the need for programs that supported local writers throughout Pasco County and the greater Tampa Bay area. The original program design was done by Gianna Russo, assistant professor of English and creative writing, who also included a unique focus for war literature. Dr. Steve Kistulentz was hired in 2015 to be the program’s founding director and administrator and fulfill Dr. Wilt’s vision.

Inspiring-Talent-2The first cohort began in July 2016 with a weeklong inaugural residency held at University Campus. Students come to university campus for an intensive week of study each summer, then return home to do the bulk of their work. The low-residency degree requires 36 graduate credit hours taken over the course of four semesters and two summer residencies; at the third and final residency, students submit a master’s thesis, a book-length collection of creative work in their chosen genre of study. Saint Leo offers tracks of study in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction.

“Everyone has a story to tell, whether it’s a deeply imagined one, or a family story that they would like to preserve for children and grandchildren. The low-residency model gives students the tools to tell those stories without neglecting their existing commitments to family, work, and community,” said Dr. Kistulentz.

One of the benefits of the program is the diversity of its students, an observation made by Dawn Sandoe-Henshaw, a member of the inaugural cohort, discussing a student population that ranges from recent college graduates to students well into retirement age. “We draw students from all walks of life, and from all areas of the country,” Dr. Kistulentz agreed.

Creative writing_upcoming guest author for 2018 Adam Johnson (1)The weeklong summer residencies also bring luminaries in the creative fields to University Campus for intimate workshops and discussions. The July 2018 roster of visiting writers is headed by award-winning author Adam Johnson (at right), whose book Fortune Smiles won the 2015 National Book Award; his 2012 novel The Orphan Master’s Son, a fictional account of the personal and political in North Korea, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Poet and memoirist Beth Ann Fennelly, poet Carmen Gimenez Smith, and novelist Tom Franklin also will be featured visitors.

The program design jointly examines the relationship between the knowledge of literature and its creation. Students pursue two courses each summer, one doing the intensive reading of a graduate program in literature while another focuses on the student’s own creative work in fiction, poetry, or narrative nonfiction.

Perhaps the most unique quality of the master’s program is its optional track of study in war literature, and writing by and for veterans of the armed services. The program builds on the long-standing relationship between Saint Leo and the armed services; nearly one-fifth of the students currently enrolled in the creative writing program are veterans or remain on active duty. Students learn the fundamentals of writing alongside strategies for putting their writing skills to work, regardless of their career paths. Current students in the program include Army officers, career Marines, and recently separated veterans of the Army, Navy, and Air Force.

Writing about their experience is not the only factor that drives those students with previous military service. Said student Jennifer Holt, who serves in the U.S. Marine Corps, “I want to spend my time on something that enriches my life and allows me to explore my creative side.” Student Jennifer Harman, a Navy veteran, agreed: “Regardless of industry, good writing is a skill that not everyone possesses, so I could use my master’s in whatever path I took.”

Inspiring-Talent-1

Inspiring-Talent-1
Picture 1 of 6

Faculty poet Dr. Anne Barngrover reading.


Focus on Faculty 

The year 2018 will see not only the graduation of the master’s program’s inaugural cohort, but also the release of several new books by creative writing program faculty.

Creative-Writing-photo_book-cover-1Program director Steve Kistulentz, associate professor of English and creative writing, is the author of two previous books of poetry, but this spring releases his debut novel Panorama, published in March by Little, Brown & Company. Robert Olen Butler, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, calls Panorama “a remarkable literary work, rare in its ability to be both thematically complex and a compelling read. Steve Kistulentz remarkably transforms our TV culture’s participatory tragedy into a deep meditation on human connectedness. This is a stunning debut by an important new writer.”
Creative writing book cover 2Poet Anne Barngrover joined the Saint Leo faculty in 2017 and will also release a new book this spring, the poetry collection Brazen Creature, an editor’s choice selection in the University of Akron Press Series in Poetry. Erin Belieu, an award-winning poet and director of the graduate creative writing program at Florida State University, called Brazen Creature, “a terrific collection by a strong, smart, feminist voice.”
bookcoverFiction writer Patrick Crerand will have his debut collection of stories, The Paper Life They Lead, published in 2018 by Arc Pair Press. The book will collect some of Crerand’s noteworthy stories, which have previously appeared in such magazines as McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Conjunctions, New Orleans Review, Ninth Letter, Indiana Review, and Cimarron Review.

In addition, nonfiction writer Brooke King ’12 will have her memoir Full Battle Rattle published by the Potomac Books imprint of the University of Nebraska Press. King has written about her experiences in combat for a number of magazines, including The Atlantic and War, Literature and the Arts.

Header photo: (Left to right) Steve Kistulentz, Anne Barngrover, Brooke King ’12, Gianna Russo, and Patrick Crerand. Russo, a published poet who teaches at the undergraduate level, designed the graduate program.

Iconic children’s TV host Fred Rogers often quoted his mother as saying in tough situations or emergencies, “Look for the helpers. There’s always someone who is trying to help.” Saint Leo alumnus Marlon Knight is one such helper.

At age 6, Knight became a caregiver. His great-grandmother came to live with him and his mother. She was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, and her condition progressively declined to the point that she was bedridden. Young Knight came to her aid. “I would get her up, help her use a bedpan, clean her,” he said. In addition, when he was 11, he helped care for his grandfather, who had suffered a stroke.

A desire to help others led him to earn a bachelor’s degree in human services from Saint Leo University’s Savannah Education Center in 2016. “I have a giving heart,” he said. “I want to make a difference.”

Knight grew up helping older neighbors, getting them groceries and doing chores. “They said, ‘You have a spirit of discernment at an early age and a spirit to communicate with people,’” Knight recalled. His helpfulness was not limited to seniors, as he volunteered and worked with children, teens, and young adults. “At the daycare [center] my children attended, I would go and read stories, acting them out,” Knight said. “And I was Santa Claus for three years in a row.”

He was enrolled at Savannah Technical College, and friends there kept encouraging him to pursue a bachelor’s degree. “Some of my classmates were going to classes at Saint Leo at night,” he said. “When I walked in the door [of the Savannah Education Center], the staff was so welcoming. They were so helpful. I said, ‘I need to do this!’ I never stopped until I walked across the stage [at commencement].”

Human services was a good fit for Knight. As a child, his mother coached him, was strict about his penmanship, and the way in which he spoke and carried himself. She encouraged him to help others. “It was that upbringing,” he said, that led him to a degree based on aiding those in need.

He completed his internship at Park Place Outreach Inc. in Savannah, GA, working with at-risk youths. Park Place operates an emergency shelter for children ages 11 to 17, who may be runaways, placed there by the court, or in other vulnerable situations. That “real world” experience coupled with volunteer work with the Human Services Club, his classmates, and the Saint Leo faculty and staff was eye-opening. “We went out in the summertime, and the kids [from Park Place Outreach] were doing volunteering, passing out food, brown bag lunches, snacks, juices, and personal care items,” Knight said. “In human services, we were seeing the homeless, and we would count the homeless and pass out blankets. We would see babies in shelters. It was just so heartbreaking, but it was just a great experience.

“You are out in the community, and you get to see the less fortunate,” Knight continued, ‘those who look like me and you, who are going through a rough time.”

Since February 2017, he has been a probation officer with the Chatham County Juvenile Court, continuing to help youths. He recently finished working with a pilot program of Homeboy Industries. The eight-week work-readiness program paid young people a stipend and taught them work and life skills. “Their conversations were about their struggles, hardships, drugs, guns, life on the streets, life behind bars, and the people who they know who have died,” Knight said.

His key to reaching them was poetry. In addition to helping others since a young age, Knight has put pen to paper to write. He wrote rap songs at 12. Sharing those raps with young gang members helps break the ice.

In December, he spoke at the 3-on-3 basketball jamboree sponsored by the City of Savannah.

Addressing a gymnasium filled with boys and girls, he performed “Problems”, a rap song he wrote as a teen.

“I started off with that poem to show that I can relate to them,” Knight said of his rap. “Poetry is how I get people to listen.”

Problems
So many problems are chasing me,
I’m stuck with nowhere to turn,
Nobody’s concerned,
who’s the blame if I never learn,
I’m full of a lot of stress,
nobody seems to know why,
I’m pressured by pain—so I get high,
hoping I can get by,
’cause on these streets ain’t nothing to do but violence-so I try to chill,
’cause if I’m caught in the crossfire—it’s so easy to be killed,
and if I die—some gonna cry,
but still life goes on . . .

His writing led him to attend the Sandhill Writers Retreat at University Campus. Encouraged by Dr. Susan Kinsella, now dean of the School of Education and Social Services, Knight submitted his poem “My Gifts” to Gianna Russo, assistant professor of English and creative writing. “What really motivated me was in the break area [of the Savannah Education Center], there is a picture of the campus,” Knight said. “I was intrigued by the beauty of the campus. I said, ‘I want to go there.’ It was one of the most beautiful sights. I wanted to get more involved with the writing, meet more writers, and learn techniques. I was excited to do something different.”

In downtime while he is sitting in court, Knight writes. “I write about life, love, spiritual growth,” he said. “The work inspires it, too.”

He translates what he sees and the stories of the young people he helps into poetry. He uses his gift of poetry to change young lives, still being the helper.

Helping-out-(1)-(2)
Marlon Knight’s children, Christopher and Christiana, are shown with Dr. Susan Kinsella, dean of the School of Education and Social Services, volunteering with the Savannah Education Center’s Human Services Club at Second Harvest Food Bank. Not pictured, Knight’s son, Marlon Jr.

Header photo: Marlon Knight ’16 and daughters Marlaya and Chistiana (wearing tiara)

When Dr. Maribeth Durst arrived at Saint Leo College in 1979 as a new assistant professor of sociology, she could have had no idea that her career path would evolve to include so many roles and duties in teaching, administration, and even the pursuit of another advanced degree. At the end of this academic term, Dr. Durst will retire after 36 years at Saint Leo, the final 10 serving as the vice president of Academic Affairs—in other words, Saint Leo’s steward of excellence in teaching and degree offerings.

Saint Leo was not Dr. Durst’s first teaching post—that was at Saint John’s University at its Staten Island, NY, campus in the late 1970s. But in academia and other sectors, opportunities to advance were scarce. Dr. Durst and her first husband came south when the Saint Leo sociology position opened, and he found a position in Tampa in his field. Dr. Durst began teaching the sociology courses in the catalog at the time. However, in what was to become a continuing theme, she saw a spot where she could make a contribution and developed the course “Women in America” as an option to the early 1980s curriculum.

In those days, women were not yet well represented in teaching or administration, and the concept of work-and-family balance had not emerged. But as a young working mother in rural St. Leo in the early 1980s, Dr. Durst found infant child care for her son, David, practically next door with the Sisters of Holy Name Monastery, the Benedictine nuns who have always been involved with Saint Leo.

Then a “real life-changing event” occurred in the spring of 1983, she recalled. A female student came to see her, at the suggestion of an administrator. The young woman was being battered by a boyfriend and she didn’t know how to get out of the situation. Dr. Durst had degrees in both sociology and anthropology (her doctorate), but not the specific skills to guide that student or others in such peril.

Her response was to take a course in social work, and she became hooked. Over three years, she earned the Master of Social Work degree. This helped inform her leadership and also qualified her to teach social work courses, along with anthropology and sociology.

She loved infusing community service requirements into her teaching and class requirements, as well. She remembers a young man who disliked the service requirement initially, but then grew to enjoy the time he spent helping coach students at the nearby Saint Anthony of Padua Interparochial School. Some of the young boys just wanted an older guy to talk to, he found. He so enjoyed it that he began explaining his community service to his mother during a long-distance phone call. At first, she didn’t understand. She feared his service was a judicial sentence and exclaimed: “What crime did you commit?” That anecdote is one of Dr. Durst’s favorite stories.

Dr. Durst also found it fulfilling to work in a college with Saint Leo’s generous spirit. “We accept any student who exhibits a chance to be academically successful. Even though we have high standards, we will give students a chance who haven’t necessarily been successful before.”

Her dedication to teaching was recognized twice with a campus award for Outstanding Faculty Member from the Student Government Association, first for 1987-1988, and again in 1996. By then, she had been promoted to a full professor of sociology and social work. During her career, she also took on a variety of administrative tasks on the academic side, as needs emerged.

Eventually, she began working for the university on years-long work related to the college’s accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools*. President Kirk assigned Dr. Durst the painstaking role in 1998, concurrent with her work as dean of the School of Education and Social Services (she had also held accrediting responsibilities at an earlier point, from 1988 to 1991). It was an arduous time as Saint Leo worked to reverse enrollment declines and prove itself. But Saint Leo did recover, did attract more students, and innovated with online learning. Saint Leo became a university in 1999, in recognition of the addition of master’s degrees in business and education.

In 2005, the vice president of Academic Affairs position became open, and at first Dr. Durst did not apply. However, she noticed that even the best of the applicants did not seem to take the institution or its potential seriously enough. In her mind, they regarded Saint Leo only as a “stepping stone to further their own careers.” She realized she was more invested in the university’s continued success, and therefore applied and earned the vice president’s job.

It has been a busy decade since, marked by more improvements. New faculty take part in an extensive mentoring process, for instance, to ensure they truly understand and support the student-centered, teaching orientation of the university. Undergraduates have an innovative liberal arts program that nurtures the development of critical thinking across multiple disciplines. A Master of Social Work degree program has been added, along with the Doctor of Business Administration. Something Dr. Durst didn’t foresee happening in her tenure—a second new academic building—is undergoing rapid construction, and it will be ready for Fall 2015.

Equally as important, Saint Leo is now recognized as a strong teaching-oriented institution, dedicated to the development of the whole individual, who may well have multiple careers over a lifetime. “Many American universities have lost their way,” Dr. Durst says. “They’re more interested in research than in teaching, and teaching is a by-product. Our responsibility is to teach our students to fulfill a productive role in society, and to give back to others.”


*Saint Leo University is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges to award associate, bachelor’s, master’s, specialist, and doctoral degrees. Contact the Commission on Colleges at 1866 Southern Lane, Decatur, Georgia 30033-4097 or call 404-679-4500 for questions about the accreditation of Saint Leo University.

Animated, effervescent, driven—all are adjectives that describe Saint Leo University alumna and instructor Keisha Armistead.

Armistead is an adjunct faculty member and a virtual curriculum instructor at the Fort Eustis (VA) Education Office. She teaches compensation, organizational training and development, risk management, recruitment, selection and placement, business principles of management, and human resources management in the evening while managing a demanding career at NASA.

In federal service at NASA for 25 years, she is lead management and program analyst for the Advance Composites Program at the NASA Langley Research Center, which specializes in government aeronautics, in Hampton, VA. “I’ve supported multiple launches and research and development projects,” Armistead says. “And I share a lot of that project management experience with the students. I keep them enthusiastic about becoming future leaders.”

As the “Friday night teacher” at Fort Eustis, Armistead said she knew she had to keep the students excited about being in a classroom and learning online. “I try to keep them involved,” Armistead explains. “I say, ‘I’d love to have a hot date, but now we are here to focus on our education.’ I understand where they’re coming from. I had to do it, too.”

Keisha Armistead's pets Sprocket and Klutchiz

On occasion, her furry friends, two Maltese named Sprocket and Klutchiz, wander into view on camera while she is teaching. “They break the ice with the students,” she comments. “We always have pet lovers in our virtual room and share during first night introductions.”

The dogs get their unique monikers from Armistead’s love of motorcycles. She formerly owned a motorcycle shop and drag-raced a modified Suzuki Hayabusa 1300 motorcycle. A YouTube video of her racing dubs her “Da Professa.”

Keisha Armistead racing a modified Suzuki

The need for speed translates into her teaching as she focuses students on being efficient and effective. “It can be difficult,” she says of the mainly adult learners she teaches. “Many of my students still have to get dinner on the table before 5:30 while taking classes. I teach about app [for cellphones], shopping online.”

Armistead strives to keep a relaxed atmosphere for her online students while keeping them focused. “Even when we’re online, you have to focus on what you’re doing,” she says. “Students are trying to do laundry or other things at home hoping I don’t call their name. But I will! I talk fast!”

She earned her bachelor’s degree in management in 1999 from Saint Leo and her master’s degree in human resource management from Troy State University. In addition, she has completed some coursework in applied management and decision sciences from Walden University. Prior to studying at Saint Leo, she earned two associate degrees from Thomas Nelson Community College in Newport News, VA.

“I motivate my students,” Armistead says. “You should never stop learning. Keep taking classes. But not just through academia. Read, share your experiences with others, and formulate your legacy. Education is an ongoing process. It’s something everyone should continue.”

Armistead returned to teach at Saint Leo because she enjoyed the support she received while a student. “I really liked the fact that Saint Leo educators treated me like an adult. They treat you like family. If I had any difficulties, they reached out to do all they could to help me achieve my educational goals. It is a welcoming environment, and it worked.”

For her students, Armistead tries to relate learning objectives to issues going on in the workplace, home, or private lives of her students.

“The same techniques we are studying to use at work, we can do at home,” she explains. “It’s managing both your home and work life. In my organizational training and development class recently, I asked, ‘Who is responsible for your career?’ Some students said, ‘My boss.’ I said, ‘No, bosses are responsible for your work performance. They don’t care about you.’ You are responsible for your life and career. If you’re not happy, only one person has the real power to change it . . . you.”