With more than one-third of its student population being affiliated with the military, Saint Leo University claimed top honors among private, not-for-profit universities as well as No. 1 in the Southeast in Military Times Best for Vets: Colleges 2021, which was released in June. Among the 300 participating universities, Saint Leo ranked 11th in the nation in the Military Times Best for Vets: Colleges 2021.
In August, U.S. Veterans Magazine (USVM) named Saint Leo University as one of the nation’s Best of the Best 2021 Top Veteran-Friendly Schools. Saint Leo was included in the fall issue of U.S. Veterans Magazine.
These rankings recognize the university’s commitment to educating military personnel, veterans, and their families wherever they may be—even if they are deployed.
“At Saint Leo, I found an environment that was encouraging and motivating,” said Stephen Koehn, ’20. “They [faculty and staff] understood the importance of my transition from soldier to student. My academic success was their No. 1 priority.”
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.
The 2017-2018 academic year concluded with 13 commencement ceremonies. Ceremonies took place in Florida, Virginia, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, California, and Texas for the university’s education center and online students.
Alysa Nantarojanaporn of Homestead, FL, was awarded the Thomas B. Southard Leadership Award Sabre at the undergraduate commencement on April 28. The sabre was presented to her by Virginia M. “Ginger” Judge, a member of the Board of Trustees. The sabre is given to the Army ROTC graduate who demonstrates leadership achievement in ROTC advanced camp, classes, and labs. Nantarojanaporn is the middle child of nine and the first college graduate in her family. She graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in criminal justice.
Saint Leo University has been involved with the Caps of Love project for three years, collecting plastic bottle caps with the proceeds from recycling going toward purchasing wheelchairs for children with mobility issues. In March, the university shipped about 15,000 pounds of bottle caps for recycling. With the value of plastic caps declining due to a low petroleum market, the university will be participating in a new charitable project in an effort to make a greater impact.
Our alumni, students, faculty, and staff enjoy a variety of special events throughout the year. Take a few moments to experience Saint Leo in Pictures. Click on any photo below to learn more.
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Burke Tomaselli ’16 (left) and Zoe Mathieu ’16 facing off in the mock presidential debate. During fall semester, Saint Leo University students in a broad range of academic classes created a fictitious (but realistic) two-party American presidential campaign. Students assumed the roles of candidates, staff, press, security consultants, and other key players, culminating with a debate between the fictitious Republican and Democratic presidential nominees on November 13.
Saint Leo education centers often receive thank-yous from grateful students. Here is just one example from Victoria McKee ’15, a student at North Charleston (SC).
Thank you for giving me hope again for my education. I had attended a couple different universities before transferring to yours. I had never felt like anything but another number to advisors and professors at my previous colleges. However, upon transferring to you, I immediately felt welcome.
When you walk into the center, you can feel the “Saint Leo difference.” You are greeted by name by Rene, Ben, and Liz. They remember your husband’s name, your pets and children, and other personal bits which broadcasts how caring they are for the students beyond just academics. At North Charleston, you are more than just a number; you’re the faculty and staff’s foremost priority, and because of this, my motivation for school returned. I turned my grades around a complete 180 upon stepping through these doors and can proudly display my Dean’s List certificates at home. Because of Saint Leo, I can talk proudly about finishing my degree again and have passion for what I’m studying.
I’d especially like to thank my director, Liz Heron. She has gone above and beyond in making sure I wasn’t just passing classes but actually succeeding. Any time I have struggled, I could go to Liz, and whatever the issue was, it was fixed immediately. Liz rekindled my fire for my education; she encourages me each term to get another blue Dean’s List certificate to hang up, and I know I always have someone in my corner cheering. Any time I have fallen behind, she has given me the drive to keep pushing forward and turn it around.
I treasure my time in class and am so grateful for the opportunity for this education. Who would have thought you could actually look forward to going to school? I am almost sad that my graduation date is coming up soon because then that means I will no longer get to walk into these doors into the center. But, hey—there is always a master’s degree to go for.
On Veterans Day 2014, the Saint Leo University community had the opportunity to hear from Jovanny Vargas ’12, ’15, who is currently a student
at Saint Leo as well as a cadet in the Suncoast Battalion. As a veteran, he offered a unique perspective to the crowd at the University Campus ceremony. Here is part of his address:
Veterans play an important role in the Saint Leo community, the ROTC program, and have made an impact on my personal experiences. As a student of Saint Leo, I feel that veterans play a crucial part in our student body and contribute a distinct point of view in the classroom based on their vast experiences. Veterans tend to spark interesting conversations based on their unique perspectives and encourage students to be more engaged in discussions.
In the ROTC program, veterans play a vital role in developing and mentoring other cadets based on their past military experiences. They constantly challenge other cadets and provide skills that benefit the organization. Cadets tend to value the opinions of veterans and rely on their expertise. Their presence in the organization as instructors, cadets, and support staff provides the essential tools needed to have a successful leadership program. The cadets that graduate from the program gain the best training available from the interaction they receive from these veterans.
During my time in service, veterans were those men and women in arms who supported me during my time away from my family. They were people I could rely on when times were hard and I always knew they had my back. They are a group of professionals who don’t settle for anything less than perfection, always striving to exceed the standard.
Saint Leo has always been a great supporter of those serving in our military no matter where that may be. Before I had the opportunity to study as a full-time student here at University Campus, I had to take the majority of my classes online or on military installations. Regardless of where the Army sent me, whether it was in Korea, Morocco, or even in the most secluded areas in the world like Antarctica, Saint Leo has always provided me with the resources I needed in order to pursue my education. It is evident that Saint Leo cares about making education available for veterans no matter where they are located.
I salute those men and women who have served and currently serve this nation.
On February 6, 2015, Dr. William J. Lennox, Jr., the former superintendent of the United States Military Academy, was named the ninth president of Saint Leo University by the university’s Board of Trustees, effective summer 2015.
Since 2008, Dr. Lennox has been a member of the Saint Leo University Board of Trustees and has served as chair of the Academic Affairs Committee.
“We are so pleased that Dr. Lennox will assume the presidency of Saint Leo University,” said Cindy Brannen, chair of the Board of Trustees. “As a board member, he is already familiar with the university and understands its unique structure. We are confident that he will continue to accelerate the upward trajectory that outgoing president, Dr. Arthur F. Kirk, Jr., initiated and sustained for 18 years.”
A retired U.S. Army three-star lieutenant general, Dr. Lennox earned his bachelor’s degree in international affairs from the United States Military Academy at West Point, NY. He went on to earn a master’s degree and a PhD in literature from Princeton University, writing his dissertation on American war poetry. He was first in his class at Fort Leavenworth’s Command and General Officer’s School, and he completed the Senior Service College Fellowship at Harvard University.
General Lennox became the superintendent of the United States Military Academy in June 2001. As superintendent, a role that is essentially the equivalent of president at a civilian college, he managed 4,400 cadets, hundreds of staff, the academic programs, and a $250 million budget on the 16,000-acre campus, and remained in that role until 2006. During his tenure, he provided strategic direction for the academic, military, and athletic initiatives. He helped transform the athletic program and oversaw upgrades to the core liberal arts program while sustaining the fourth-ranked undergraduate engineering program in the country. He also implemented and improved opportunities for cultural exposure and expanded semesters abroad to countries including Chile, China, Russia, and Spain. While at West Point, General Lennox completed a $150 million fundraising campaign with more than $220 million, resulting in enhancements to the academic, athletic, and military programs.
After graduating from West Point, General Lennox served in a wide variety of assignments in the field artillery. Additionally, during the course of his distinguished 35-year career, he held a number of staff positions, including a White House Fellowship, as the special assistant to the Secretary of the Army, and as the executive officer for the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and Plans.
From 2006 to 2012, Dr. Lennox served as senior vice president at Goodrich Corporation, a Fortune 500 aerospace firm, in Washington, DC. In that role, he was responsible for developing and executing strategy for the company’s Department of Defense programs and for interacting with Congress, the executive branch, state and local governments, and aerospace contractors.
“I know first-hand that Saint Leo is a special place,” Dr. Lennox commented. “In my role on the Board of Trustees, I have seen this institution undergo remarkable growth in the last several years. Art Kirk has led this university with grand vision, innovation, and execution, and we are all grateful for his tireless efforts. In the next few months, I look forward to getting to know our faculty, staff, and students, as I prepare to work with them to make Saint Leo even stronger than it is today. I am honored to take on the role of university president.”
Dr. Lennox and his wife, Anne, have three sons: Andrew, Matthew, and Jonathan.