Educating students where they live and work is a core part of Saint Leo. Since 1973, the university has taught students at education centers and other teaching locations, in addition to University Campus.
Center students for the most part are older and nontraditional students, meaning they may not enter college at age 18, immediately after graduating from high school. They often are working full time and juggling family commitments with studying. Saint Leo’s centers focus on offering classes when students need them.
Making education center students feel a part of the university is crucial to their success. The centers sponsor many activities and clubs to bring students together, including participating in Saint Leo Serves projects in their communities. Saint Leo changes our students’ lives and makes a difference in the communities where centers are located.
University administration continuously monitors center locations to make sure they are meeting the needs of current and prospective students. In the past few years, Saint Leo has opened new locations and expanded others to better provide educational opportunities for the surrounding communities. Soon, the university will better serve the Charleston, SC, region with the opening of a new center in Summerville, SC, and a second one on the Naval Weapons Station Charleston at Joint Base Charleston. Here’s a look at some of Saint Leo’s new and expanded education centers.
– MacDill Air Force Base
East Pasco Education Center at University Campus
–State College Office
–New Port Richey PHSC Office
–Spring Hill PHSC Office
Key West at Naval Air Station Key West
–Naval Station Mayport Office
The Jacksonville center moved in December 2017 to a new location in the Oakleaf Town Center, an open-air regional shopping center. The 8,400-square-foot center gives students access to five classrooms, administrative staff, and a computer lab, as well as Saint Leo’s online library collection, online tutoring, and personalized career services.
Saint Leo’s Ocala location opened in the fall of 2016. Its 9,172 square feet features 10 classrooms that include the latest technology, a computer lab, and student lounges.
Classes began in January 2019 at the new Atlanta Education Center at Lindbergh City Center. The centers in Morrow and Marietta, GA, ceased operations in December. Saint Leo occupies the entire second floor of the new Atlanta center with more than 23,000 square feet. It features eight classrooms with plans to develop more, a Learning Resource Center, cybersecurity lab, and student lounge.
A grand opening ceremony was held in October 2018 at a new location, but Saint Leo has served the Savannah community since 1975, when it began offering classes at Hunter Army Airfield (HAAF) and Fort Stewart. The new location is 14,900 square feet. It features 13 classrooms, a “cyber bar,” Learning Resource Center, computer lab, student study room, and student lounge. In addition, the center boasts the university’s third Military Resource Center for student-veterans and military-related students.
South Hampton Roads
–JEB-Little Creek Office
–Naval Air Station Oceana Office
–Naval Station Norfolk Office
Saint Leo University celebrated the grand opening of its new location in 2016 at Naval Station Norfolk.
–Fort Eustis Office
–Langley Air Force Base Office
Saint Leo University celebrated the grand opening of its expanded Newport News location in April 2018. The center added 4,386 square feet to its site, enabling it to open with a fully equipped cybersecurity lab, as well as additional classroom space, a study lounge, and a Military Resource Center.
The new location for the Charleston Education Center is in the booming Nexton area of Summerville. It opens this fall and will offer updated technology, larger classrooms, a dedicated computer lab, learning resource center, student lounge, and more support services. Moving into a stand-alone location also will provide an opportunity to build stronger business partnerships that will benefit students and alumni.
Naval Weapons Station Charleston
Opening this fall.
Shaw Air Force Base Sumter Office
at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi
In May, Saint Leo University was one of seven Florida colleges and universities (and one of two private colleges) invited to travel on a business development trip to Israel with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Saint Leo President Jeffrey Senese attended the trip and was able to sign an agreement of cooperation with Tel Aviv University. The agreement provides opportunities for research collaborations, as well as cultural, faculty, and student exchanges.
Saint Leo University and its Tampa and MacDill education centers were sponsors of MacDill Air Force Base’s Back to School Info Fair in August. More than 2,500 participated in this year’s event at which MacDill and Tampa staff presented children and parents with notebooks and school supplies.
Alumna Arlene Johnston is co-founder of Burger 21, a popular and growing restaurant franchise.
In 2009, after her twin boys Joseph and Jared were old enough to start school and her stepsons Robby and Ryan were away at college, Johnston and her husband Mark decided to expand his established restaurant brands and enter into the growing fast-casual restaurant segment. The American appetite for quality, creative burger flavor combinations was growing, and at the time, it seemed there was potential for a burger restaurant concept to do well.
That year, the couple opened their first Burger 21 location in Tampa, FL, and set their sights on growing.
“Since there was experience with franchising a restaurant brand in the family, we decided to franchise Burger 21 after the successful opening of our first location,” Johnston said.
Burger 21 offers chef-crafted burgers in a variety of flavor combinations. The menu features classics like the Cheesy and the Bacon Cheesy, made with 100 percent Certified Angus Beef®, cheese, bacon, lettuce, tomato, and their special 21 sauce, on a brioche bun.
Then there are burgers that offer something a little different, like the popular Tex-Mex Haystack—a burger with applewood smoked bacon, onion strings, smoked Gouda, chipotle-jalapeño sauce, guacamole, lettuce, and tomato. In addition to beef burgers, that first store offered 21 chef-created recipes, highlighting a unique burger variety: turkey, chicken, seafood, and vegetarian. Other favorites are The Skinny and The Ahi Tuna burgers. The number of burgers has continued to grow as new recipes and seasonal burgers are introduced. They range in price from $5.79 to $9.99 depending on type and location.
Today, Johnston’s twin boys are juniors in high school, and her stepsons help run their businesses. Burger 21 has grown to 25 locations in eight states, including two locations at Tampa International Airport. Their largest concentration of restaurants is in Florida, and they have 10 restaurants in development.
As co-founder, Johnston’s day-to-day work involves managing the Burger 21 franchisee committee and the brand’s annual conference, which provides franchisees with education and insights on achieving success with their restaurants. She also oversees strategic planning and goal-setting for the burger brand, as well as for Grillsmith, a group of Tampa casual restaurants offering American comfort dishes, where she serves as principal.
“I am immensely proud of our Burger 21 brand and the high-quality, fast-casual product we offer,” Johnston said. “I love how the creation of an idea can then provide job opportunities and a family culture for our teams.”
While some may say she has achieved remarkable success, Johnston points out that career success is only one part of the equation. In her opinion, true success should not be measured solely by monetary means.
“Surely, we all need money to live; however, making sure we are content with our education, career, family, and friends completes the success equation.”
For Johnston, building strong relationships with the people in her life is incredibly important. Her advice for those looking to advance in their careers is to treat everyone with respect and demonstrate respect in all aspects of life—from how you park your car to the cleanliness of your desk. She advises maintaining a humble spirit and checking egos at the door.
“There is nothing better than to work together as a team,” Johnston said. “So many great possibilities blossom. Smart leaders know that teamwork is the key to succeed.”
Another important piece of advice from Johnston: never assume you are supposed to know everything. Johnston recommends reaching out to others who are experts in their fields to gain additional knowledge and insight before making important decisions.
“Making a rushed decision, which results in the wrong choice, in my honest opinion, makes you lose credibility as a knowledgeable and competent professional,” she said.
The importance Johnston places on respect and relationships translates into her personal life as well. She wanted deeply for her sons to have a worldly upbringing and made it a priority to introduce them to different cultures and languages. Through this exposure and their hard work, they are fluent in three languages—English, Spanish, and French—and have unique experiences that help shape how they approach life.
“My biggest accomplishment is becoming a mother of twin boys, who are now 17, and teaching them about life and the world,” Johnston said.
Where it All Started
Johnston moved to the Tampa Bay area 30 years ago from her home in Puerto Rico to attend Saint Leo University. She had learned about Saint Leo from friends and enrolled in classes at University Campus. However, after securing a full-time job at a hotel in Tampa, Johnston took her remaining classes at the education center located on MacDill Air Force Base. She earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
Johnston admired the spirit of togetherness that existed throughout the university community. She recalls how everyone was always willing to help one another. Saint Leo’s core values still resonate with her.
“Today, I can say there are several value takeaways from my time at Saint Leo—one being respect, and the other integrity,” Johnston said. “Both values continue to shape my life, and I cherish how they were a part of my Saint Leo experience.”
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 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.”
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.”
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.
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
Two 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
When 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.
Leslie Sukup ’07, ’11, ’17 is special for many reasons, and here is just one example: She is the first person to earn a bachelor’s, a master’s, and a doctoral degree from Saint Leo University.
Years ago, when Sukup was on active duty with the U.S. Air Force, she wanted to pursue her education. However, every time she moved—which was every two or three years—she would lose credits. Then she discovered Saint Leo. Online education was a fairly new phenomenon, and Saint Leo’s program gave her the flexibility she needed. Even when she was deployed, she “could get access to a computer and keep up with my schoolwork,” she said.
Sukup was amazed that even as an online student, she received personal attention from the faculty. “I loved the experience and loved how I was treated—like everyone else who had been on campus for four years.”
When it came time to graduate with her bachelor’s degree in computer information systems, Sukup happened to be stationed in Washington, DC, at the Pentagon. When offered the chance to come to University Campus to walk for commencement she jumped at the opportunity. Sukup was impressed with how the university treated online students for the commencement activities.
Sukup then went on to earn her Master of Business Administration (MBA). As she took classes, the knowledge she was gaining helped her with her job in the Air Force. In that role, she worked in knowledge management, handling information (both paper and digital), network security, and secure network administration.
She has vivid memories of notable deployments. For instance, soon after the attacks on September 11, 2001, she was deployed to Guam. She spent a few months there at a refueling station, supporting bombers that were headed to Afghanistan. While deployed to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, she took advantage of that location and proudly walked across the commencement stage at University Campus with her MBA. At another point, she was assigned to the Pentagon and spent four years in presidential flight support. Working with the Department of Defense “was eye-opening, and I was on call 24/7.”
Sukup finished her MBA in 2011 and applied for the Doctor of Business Administration program the following year. At that time she was still on active duty, but she always wanted to earn her doctorate. Saint Leo University’s DBA program had just launched, and she knew it was perfect for her.
According to Sukup, the DBA program in management is rigorous, and it “absolutely prepared me to be a professor. The dissertation process, doing research—all that gave me a unique aspect into teaching. I focused on resilience and grit.”
Sukup walked across the commencement stage again on April 29, 2017, as part of the first group of students to earn DBAs from Saint Leo.
In September 2017, after 25 years of service, she retired from the U.S. Air Force, and today she is an assistant professor of management at Ferris State University (MI), teaching organizational behavior and operations management.
“Going into teaching was a lifelong dream for me, a goal since high school,” Sukup said. “I love seeing the lightbulbs come on with students. It’s very rewarding.”
“From day one, Leslie was a model doctoral student,” said Dr. Russell Clayton, assistant professor of management. “Earning a doctorate requires a different mindset than pursuing an MBA, and Leslie definitely figured out quickly how to think like a doctoral student. This showed in everything she did in the DBA program from coursework to her dissertation. I’m happy that she has joined higher education and will be sharing her knowledge with the next generation.”
When she is not teaching class, she spends time with her family: husband, Steven, and two daughters, Sky (age 3) and Sage (age 1). Thinking back to juggling work and school, she explained with a laugh that she learned she was expecting Sky just as she started the DBA program. Then she learned she was expecting Sage just as she started her dissertation.
Her life is full and busy, but what’s next? “I’m a lifelong learner,” Sukup said. “There is always something out there for me to learn and help me be better.”
It has been a busy year for President Bill Lennox. In March, Saint Leo University was honored as the Military Business Partner of the Year at Greater Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce’s 18th annual Military Appreciation Banquet, and Dr. Lennox accepted the award on behalf of the university. In May, he was asked to serve as treasurer of Independent Colleges and Universities in Florida (ICUF). On behalf of ICUF, he visited a number of state legislators and presented them with a plaque recognizing their inclusion on ICUF’s Legislative Honor Roll for supporting private higher education and educational choice in Florida (photo above with State Senator Wilton Simpson). In June, he served as the keynote speaker for the Joint Special Operations University Special Operations Forces Education Conference at MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa.
Dr. Melanie Storms Dr. Melanie Storms has joined the university as vice president of the newly created Saint Leo WorldWide division. She has extensive experience with both programmatic and regional accreditation. As a university administrator, Dr. Storms has worked with traditional graduate student populations, as well as adult learners at the graduate and undergraduate levels in campus-based and online settings. Her experience positions her to lead Saint Leo’s online and education center programs through Saint Leo WorldWide. She earned her Bachelor of Science degree in psychology from the University of Central Florida, and her master’s and doctoral degrees in clinical psychology from the Florida Institute of Technology.
Father Kyle Smith ’07
In July, Father Kyle Smith ’07 returned to his alma mater as chaplain for University Ministry. A Florida native, Father Kyle earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in middle grades education from Saint Leo. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from St. John Vianney College Seminary in Miami, FL, and moved on to St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach, FL, to begin his study of theology. Father Kyle earned his Master of Divinity in 2014 and was ordained as a priest in May 2014 for the Diocese of St. Petersburg.
Bob Quinn has joined Saint Leo as vice president of Business Development. He earned his bachelor’s degree and MBA from Fordham University (NY). A seasoned veteran in corporate management, he served as a captain in the U.S. Army and was awarded the Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster, among other commendations.
Colonel Pamela Martis
In June, retired U.S. Army Colonel Pamela Martis joined Saint Leo University as director of Military Affairs and Services. She retired from active duty in 2013, having served 28 years. She was commissioned from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, NY, Class of 1985, where she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in operations research management. She earned a Master of Arts degree in Russian, Central European, East European, and Eurasian studies from the University of Kansas. In addition, she received a master’s degree from the National Defense University, Industrial College of the Armed Forces. She was awarded the Bronze Star and the Department of Defense Distinguished Superior Service Medal.
In August, Cyrus Brown assumed the new role of executive director of University Public Safety. In this capacity, he is responsible for reviewing and improving safety measures throughout the university. Prior to joining Saint Leo, he was associate director of safety for Bethune-Cookman University (FL) and served for 31 years in the Florida Highway Patrol. A veteran of the U.S. Army, he earned his bachelor’s degree from Barry University (FL) and his master’s degree from the University of Central Florida. He also is a graduate of the FBI National Academy, the Southern Police Institute at the University of Louisville (KY), and Leadership in Police Organizations program from the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Leaping out of an airplane at 12,500 feet would make most people shake in their shoes. And for her first jump, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Jeretta “Jetta” Dillon said she was nervous, but “it was amazing.”
Originally from Bascom, OH, Dillon joined the Navy because she wanted to see the world and serve in the military. And there was a family legacy as well—her grandfather served in the Navy for 28 years. Her first duty station was Greece. Since then, she has been in Washington State, Japan, and the Philippines among other places. “And I had the opportunity to be stationed at Key West and didn’t want to pass up paradise,” she said, laughing.
While in Key West, she knew she wanted to get a college degree. She chose the Saint Leo Key West Education Center “because of the tuition assistance and the campus on base” and earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in business administration.
“My Saint Leo is the backbone of who I am today. It got me thinking on what I wanted to do and helped me decide to further my education later on.”
— Jeretta “Jetta” Dillon ’00
“I met a lot of great friends going through classes,” Dillon said of her Saint Leo experience. “I learned to network, and they helped me with my package to put in for Officer Candidate School.”
Dillon’s Navy Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) is supply officer (called a logistics officer in other military branches), and now she is stationed at the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, FL. As the deputy executive officer to the commander, Dillon works for General Joseph L. Votel at SOCOM and makes “sure his calendar is organized, his strategic papers are thorough, and that he meets with the right people.”
Dillon’s Saint Leo classes such as Organizational Behavior and Religions of the World helped prepare her for her current job. The religion class particularly was helpful because of the study of Islam as well as other religions.
“My Saint Leo is the backbone of who I am today,” Dillon said. “It got me thinking on what I wanted to do and helped me decide to further my education later on.” She earned her MBA from the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
When she arrived at SOCOM, a peer suggested she be on the ground crew and provide narration for the U.S. Special Operations Command Parachute Team known as the Para-Commandos. There are about 20 people on the team and four of them are women. While she doesn’t have many jumps, Dillon enjoys being on the ground crew and providing narration. At air shows, such as the Tampa Bay AirFest at MacDill, she said the SOCOM team usually performs two jumps a day. In addition to all air shows, they also jump into parades, MLB games, NFL games, and high school football games.
Dillon’s Saint Leo education provided her the platform to succeed and to soar—with a parachute, of course.