Double alumnus and Navy vet proves anyone can dream big.
Growing up, Anthony Owens recalls eating sandwiches with only condiments because his family could not afford much more. A Navy veteran who has gone on to a successful post-military career, the Saint Leo University double alumnus is now sharing his story of overcoming adversity to achieve his dreams in a book, aptly called Syrup Sandwiches: Choose Not to Give Up.
Owens, 59, was born in Dawson, GA, but grew up in Brooklyn, NY. Now, he and his wife, Wanda, reside in Virginia. Married for 39 years, they are the parents of son, Shawn (married to Kate), and grandparents to 3-year-old granddaughter, Billie. Owens made it his mission to be a positive role model to his son, breaking the cycle of poverty and fatherlessness in his family.
While he faced many obstacles growing up, Owens chose a path to lead him out. He served in the U.S. Navy from 1981 to 2001. As a petty officer first class, Owens worked as an information technology specialist whose main duties included monitoring and troubleshooting the communication systems between Navy ships and land stations. He served in two wars and was deployed to the Mediterranean region.
“It was a great experience meeting people from all over the world and learning so much from them,” Owens said of his military career. “This greatly broadened my horizons. I’ve learned that we can be pigeonholed in our lives if we don’t branch out. I came out of the Navy being a better person than when I went in. I had matured, educated myself, and learned to respect others.”
Upon retiring from the Navy, Owens began his college education as an adult learner by pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in sociology degree from Saint Leo’s former South Hampton Roads Education Center in Virginia. He also took some classes online. He graduated in 2008 and then continued his education by earning a Master of Business Administration degree with a specialization in information security management in 2011. He has countless positive memories about Saint Leo.
“I liked all of my professors,” he said. “They were very structured and professional. They also realized that, as military students, we had schedules that could change.”
Today, he works as a federal information technology specialist.
As for Syrup Sandwiches, which is available on Amazon, Owens said he felt compelled to share his story with anyone who might be able to relate to it or find encouragement in his perseverance. “The book is an inspiration for all who have endured childhood struggles and want to break free from limitations and social stereotypes to become the best versions of their selves,” an Indie Reader staff member wrote in a review.
In his book, Owens shares the story of his hardships and how he overcame them.
“My mom struggled to raise us, and we were on welfare,” he recalled. “Many nights, we went to bed hungry. We only had bread, mustard, mayonnaise, ketchup, and syrup. We would make sandwiches using just these condiments.”
Thanks to family support coupled with internal strength, he never let his past hinder his future goals.
“I have been through countless traumatic experiences in my life,” he said. “I could have easily turned to drugs, gangs, gone to jail, or ended up dead. But I believed there was something better in life and refused to give up.”
His main message to others is, “I want everyone who has or is going through challenges to not allow those experiences to define or dictate who you are as a person now or who you will become in the future.”
Alumna Rose Mustain’s work at NASA is supporting deep space exploration.
Rose Mustain ’95 is reaching for the moon and beyond. The Saint Leo alumna plays a key role in NASA’s Gateway program, which will be an outpost orbiting the moon in support of long-term human presence on the lunar surface and as a staging point for deep space exploration.
“The Gateway program allows for NASA to prove technologies and mature systems necessary to live and work on another celestial body—the moon—before embarking on multi-year missions to Mars,” Mustain explained. The Gateway is part of NASA’s larger Artemis program.
At NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Mustain serves as the information management and solutions lead within the Gateway Program Planning and Control Office to protect and structure data, including Information Technology (IT) systems and solutions, cybersecurity, configuration management, data management, meeting services, and privacy implementation.
Mustain earned her bachelor’s degree in 1995 in human resource management from Saint Leo University’s Langley Air Force Base Education Center in Virginia. While she started in human resources, the technical aspects of the job soon won her heart and her career took a big leap to information technology.
“My NASA career began in the Training and Education Branch, Office of Human Resources, at NASA Langley Research Center as a secretarial cooperative education student with Thomas Nelson Community College (TNCC),” she said.
After earning her associate degree, she attended Saint Leo. “Shortly after graduating with my bachelor’s degree, I landed an employee development specialist position in the office where I began my career,” Mustain said.
She was responsible for training NASA and contractor employees in several computer courses ranging from Microsoft Office products to HTML and Java web programming. Mustain then was asked to create and establish the Office of Human Resources’ first website.
“Working with the graphics team, I learned how to program using HTML to accomplish this goal,” she said. “I loved it! The fun of working across several different offices and combining ideas into a final product was challenging, yet fascinating. I was able to organize the data and assemble the information for users to understand the Office of Human Resources’ products, services, and people that deliver those items to Langley Research Center.”
By creating the website, Mustain learned a new skill and launched opportunities to work on process improvement and automation projects for the center director’s office. This led to her becoming an IT specialist in the Office of Chief Information Officer, leading the web and database systems.
“I have had three major transformations during my career at NASA—secretary, employee development specialist, and information technology specialist,” Mustain said. “All relied heavily on education, taking chances, and successfully implementing the skills taught by professors. My dream was to work on the Mission Directorate side of the organization, yet rarely did those organizations have information technology specialist positions. The Crew Exploration Vehicle, now Orion, posted a job in 2005. I went home and spoke to my husband, David, and our young sons, Matthew and Jacob, about the opportunity. Without qualm, all three said I had to take the chance and apply for the position. When I was offered the job, there was no hemming and hawing about moving 1,100 miles to Johnson Space Center.”
For Mustain, space exploration and discovery will always foster learning. “I am excited to see what we discover about our technologies and ourselves,” she said. “Before the first moon landing, there were no cell phones, microwaves, or compact (laptop) computers. I have seen the evolution of technology over the years brought on by the exploration outside Earth. I cannot wait to see what the next phase of space exploration presents to humanity.”
Dealing with the Data
Mustain predicts the future of information management is, “in the enhancement of using automated intelligence to delve into the yottabytes (1 followed by 24 zeros) of data that will exist.
“Humans must adapt and get assistance diving through the overabundance of data to determine the relevant data needed to solve tomorrow’s problems,” Mustain continued. “Just as the World Wide Web and search engines such as Google and Yahoo transformed the availability of information, augmented intelligence will allow discovery of relevant data where humans can then leverage the knowledge gained to determine goals and objectives to solve integrated and complex problems.”
As for what excites Mustain about her job, she said it’s working with a team of individuals focused on exploration beyond low earth orbit. “The team challenges each other with ideas, investigates and learns from previous programs, and struggles with defining the concepts for securing a space vehicle and the systems housing the data from the mission,” Mustain said. “The joy gained by the team in reaching a resolution, implementing a new approach, and seeing the efficiencies from those decisions excites me.”
Lessons Learned at Leo
Mustain recalls how one of her Saint Leo sociology professors helped to challenge her thinking. The professor charged the class to think of where they learned their bias from and to consider what drives people to interact with one another in hostile or peaceful ways. While at first these questions frustrated Mustain, in the end, it helped to broaden her thinking.
“She awakened my realization that my misconceptions, yes, mistaken notions, about myself and others, only limited me,” she said. “Those self-imposed restrictions impacted my chosen limited interactions with other humans.”
Saint Leo’s business administration degree program required courses that Mustain said she incorrectly assumed were not necessary: courses in theology, sociology, and “soft skills.” Mustain said that while her concentration was in human resources, the general education courses were equally valuable.
“Those are the courses where I learned the most and began my fascination with organizational change and transformation,” Mustain said. “How do you establish programs that inspire employees to change their behavior? What can be done to have all organizational members focus on an objective and achieve it? These are lessons I still use today as NASA and the Gateway program aspire to embrace the fluidity of data instead of PDFs and documents that inhibit the ability to adjust quickly.”
Who influenced/influences you or played a big role in your life and your career?
Personally, my mama, Jackie Willett; my husband, David; and my two grown sons, Matthew and Jacob. The four of them supported my career goals and inspired me to believe in myself, used tough love when I faltered on goals, and helped me through several classes and challenging job situations.
What do you like to do in your free time?
Spend time with my husband and sons on our small farm that has cows and chickens as well as several cats and two loving dogs.
What was your first job?
I was a skee ball attendant at Buckroe Beach Amusement Park. The wooden balls and the iron machines would need some influencing from time to time since they were more than 40 years old.
What is something you would like to learn more about?
Cybersecurity—it is an ever-changing environment with outbursts of attacks and chaos. It reminds me of when I started learning about information technology programming languages—the learning never ends.
If you could do anything now, what would you do? Why?
Go to the Greenbrier State Forest in Caldwell, West Virginia, because the serenity and peace of the river are always rejuvenating to my mind, body, and spirit.