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Encouraging and educating the next generation of law enforcement leaders is just part of what drives Saint Leo University alumna Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis, ’98. As the chief of the Durham (NC) Police Department and president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, Davis not only serves her community but also strives to improve her chosen profession. She advocates for change and standardization in training and the implementation of best practices for all law enforcement officers, nationwide.

Davis graduated with honors, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in criminology from Saint Leo, studying at Fort McPherson in Atlanta. She earned a master’s degree in public administration from Central Michigan University and hopes to earn a doctoral degree.

She began studying at Georgia Military College to earn an associate degree and then transferred her credits to Saint Leo. “I was very familiar with Fort McPherson as my father was a career Army soldier,” she said. “When he retired and came back to Atlanta, we stayed close to the military environment.”

A co-worker at the Atlanta Police Department spoke highly of Saint Leo University. “He started talking about his instructor, Dr. Art King, and said what a great curriculum the university offered,” Davis said. “I thought it was a good fit. And there were evening classes that fit into my schedule. I looked at the curriculum, and it fit with my career aspirations.”

Like many of Saint Leo’s criminal justice students who are employed at law enforcement agencies, Davis said, “There literally were days when I sat in my patrol car writing my papers in between calls.

“Saint Leo was just an awesome experience for me,” she said. “[Earning my degree is] probably one of the proudest moments in my life. I appreciated that journey because it was so tied to my work. To graduate and to graduate with honors, to know that the sky is the limit. I could do it. I could juggle the school work and still excel in the job.”

Serving Her Communities

Davis has served in law enforcement for 34 years, beginning in 1986 as an officer with the Atlanta Police Department. At the time she started, the Atlanta agency was making an effort to diversify its police force, especially recruiting more women. Although there were 11 women in her recruit class of 35, only two graduated.

She and other female officers encountered resistance to them being police officers, but “it’s been getting better over the years,” Davis said. “There are more women in charge. And there are some male leaders who are forward-thinking and appreciate the contributions women make. It can be better. With 18,000 police agencies around the country, think of how many women are leading [those agencies]. We could absolutely do better in that regard.”

Davis said her Saint Leo degree prepared her for leadership roles. “I think it broadened my perspective,” she said. “Even though I was very familiar with law enforcement, it expanded my thoughts on social problems, history of the law enforcement, community policing, and all of those important elements that are key to be successful—to really understand the criminal justice system. I learned what is expected of law enforcement agencies. It’s not just responding to calls.”

As she progressed through the ranks with the Atlanta Police Department, she developed strengths and skills in crime analysis and reduction; strategic planning; community engagement; special operations; homeland security; project oversight; capital improvements; and many more aspects of law enforcement.

In 2008, Davis was selected by Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine, as one of 80 women for the O White House Leadership Project, Women Rule! The group, dubbed “Tomorrow’s Leaders,” benefited from meeting with some of the country’s trailblazers, which helped prepare Davis for her future.

Her responsibilities as chief of the Durham Police Department, are varied. She became chief in 2016, and oversees a department of more than 600 employees and a $90 million yearly budget, while serving a population of 280,000. “A lot of the responsibility is more how we function as a unit and work well with the community,” the chief said. “Community engagement is critically important. Helping our officers know the community is our customers. Building relationships is imperative. I cannot think of a time that we need that more than now.”

Building Leaders

Davis became a member of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE) as a sergeant in Atlanta. While the organization is geared toward law enforcement executives and police chiefs, associate members who hope to be mentored also are accepted. Davis joined NOBLE because she wanted a mentor. “I wanted to know the ins and outs of leadership,” she said. “We [NOBLE] also do a lot of work in the community, a lot of education, and awareness training, especially in communities of color so young people have a good understanding of the police. And we want them to have safe encounters with the police. We discuss ‘what do you do if you’re pulled over?’ NOBLE also helps officers as well, managing the situation so that it is a safe encounter. It’s sort of a twofold approach. The end goal being mutual respect and making sure everyone goes home safe.”

NOBLE started in 1976 because of racial inequities that prohibited African-American law enforcement from moving up in the ranks, Davis said. “It was created to help to develop minority police officers into executives,” she said. “Since then, we’re very involved, trying to achieve equity in communities, equity in the way we operate. It isn’t a Black-only organization. It is for those who share similar values and goals.”

Now serving as president of NOBLE, Davis has been in the spotlight in 2020. She appeared on “Good Morning America” on ABC on June 3, and called for “sweeping changes and police reform” as she reacted to the nationwide protests taking place over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers.

But even more importantly, she testified before the U.S. Senate Committee for the Judiciary on June 16, about Police Use of Force and Community Relations. “I was invited to testify, and I discussed the 10 key areas that we feel as an organization must be addressed in order for police agencies to be more standardized, more accountable, and so they don’t keep officers who keep committing egregious acts.”

Calling For Change

Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis outside of the Durham (NC) Police Department building.

In her testimony, Davis said, “We wholeheartedly support the passing of the ‘Justice in Policing Act,’ which specifically addresses the loopholes that continue to allow policing tragedies free of oversight and accountability, environments that foster unfettered racial tension, and the continued desecration of what I’ve always thought to be a NOBLE profession. Lastly, on behalf of more than 3,800 law enforcement leaders, mostly minority who represent the membership of NOBLE, I thank you for supporting the law enforcement profession, but more importantly, for listening to the voices of protesters around the globe who demand change … they too deserve action.”

Davis said she is proud to serve as president of the national organization. “It’s an honor to be able to speak on behalf of the 18,000 police organizations, especially at times like this,” she said. “We come from the community, we understand the communities—not that my other colleagues do not—but we advocate for change, to listen to the community.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged her, Davis said. “But I’m still carrying out my goals and strategic plans,” she said. “I’ve done four interviews in one day.”

She considers communication as being key. “I encourage up-and-coming leaders to take advantage of public speaking, become certified as an instructor, take classes,” she said. “If you can’t communicate it, you can’t share it, or articulate it in a meaningful way. “It’s important to work on ourselves holistically.”

Saint Leo’s criminal justice program primed Davis for her current positions. “That’s what prepared me for leadership,” she said. “You can be a great police officer and know the fundamentals, but until you expand your perspective and learn what is expected and engage the community, you won’t succeed as a leader. You have to look at law enforcement from an aerial view.”

Her degree helped her learn about recruitment, retention, and other administrative support roles that leaders must fill. “You’re dealing with a lot of various personalities,” she said. “You’re trying to find cohesion—to bring everyone together from different places and perspectives. Look at it from a holistic standpoint, so you get buy-in for the philosophy of the department.”

Davis strives to lift up and mentor others. “I’m constantly trying to ensure people have opportunities to take on leadership roles,” she said. “I’m preparing an environment for that, including college and advanced training. I’m always telling people, ‘You can go back to school. I did it! I had a daughter, and I worked at the same time!’”

She and her husband, Terry, are parents to one daughter and grandparents of two, who live in New York. Most of her family live in Atlanta while the couple is based in Durham. Terry Davis also is a Saint Leo alumnus, having earned his associate degree from Saint Leo in 1997.

Looking toward the future, at 60, Davis said she is “sort of at the sunset of my career. I believe I still I have a lot to offer this industry. It may not be in the position as a chief; it could be in some other role. There is the saying, ‘To much is given, much is required,’ I still believe there is more for me to give.”


Hear Alumna Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis

View the testimony of Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis, chief of the Durham Police Department and president of National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.

Chief Davis on “Good Morning America”:

Nicholas Finch with his partner, Ann Marie, their 3-year-old son, Wallace, and their rescue dog.

It’s hard to cram a graduate degree program, a full-time teaching job, and caring for a little one into one schedule, but Nicholas Finch ’20 managed to do it. And along the way, he nurtured his love of writing.

The 26-year-old, originally from Whitchurch, England, credits the flexibility of Saint Leo’s low-residency creative writing program to making his educational goals possible. Finch, who enjoys a career as a teacher, lives in St. Petersburg, FL with his partner, Ann Marie, 3-year-old son, Wallace, and a rescue dog.

Educational Journey

Finch began his higher education career at the University of Tampa (FL) where he majored in English and writing. It was a former professor who convinced him to enroll with Saint Leo University.

“I had Dr. Steve Kistulentz there (UT) and volunteered in the residency program,” Finch said.

While he was accepted into a few full-residency creative writing graduate programs and even started in one of them, he just didn’t feel comfortable.

Kistulentz became director of Saint Leo’s new low-residency Master of Arts in creative writing program in 2016. “I was following Dr. Kistulentz on Facebook and knew about Saint Leo starting its new graduate degree program,” Finch said. “He encouraged me to apply.”

Finch joined Saint Leo University in the summer of 2018, enrolling in the university’s creative writing graduate degree program, choosing the fiction track.

“With the full-residency programs, you pretty much can’t work anywhere else and have to be totally committed and invested in them,” Finch said. “I also wanted to start a family, and it just wouldn’t have been practical for me to be tied down with a program like that.”

The Online Format of this Creative Writing Degree Program

At first, Finch had some trepidation about enrolling in a low-residency degree program in which the coursework is primarily conducted online.

“Before starting this program, I had never taken an online course in my life,” Finch said. “I admit I was a little hesitant because I’m not the most tech-savvy person, and the idea of an online degree program was fairly intimidating to me.”

But thanks to the availability of his professors and the summer residency aspect which enabled him to meet his instructors and classmates in person at University Campus, his concerns were quickly alleviated.

“I’d say I actually felt closer to my professors in this program than I did in traditional classroom-based programs I’ve been in,” Finch said.

The Summer Residency

Each summer, students in this program gather at University Campus for one week. During this event, several accomplished authors are on hand to read from their works and offer advice to students on their respective writing projects.

“Some of the most exciting aspects of this program included listening to these writers read from their work and the craft workshops they do,” Finch said. Hearing their stories about their life experiences as writers has been invaluable.”

Getting to meet Pulitzer Prize-winning author Adam Johnson was a true thrill for Finch. “I actually shared a cheeseburger with him, which was a very interesting and unexpected experience,” Finch said. “I had led a book club on one of his books when I used to work at a bookstore.”

Connecting with his fellow students was also a big perk.

“It’s surprising how well you get to know the other students in just a week during the residency and through our online discussions,” Finch said. “You really learn so much from your classmates.”

Students must complete a book thesis project in their coursework. For Finch, he started out with a short story that he has expanded into a much longer project. The story is about two brothers in which one is left to care for the other brother’s child and the drama that ensues from this situation. It is loosely based on his personal experiences.

Career Highlights

Finch currently teaches ninth grade English and print and digital media at Jesuit High School in Tampa, FL. And when not in the classroom, his other job is his writing career. Already, Finch has had about 30 of his works—short stories and poetry—published in small literary and online journals.

Some of these print publications have included Avis MagFlash: The International Short-Short Story MagazineThe Level Crossing, and Haiku Journal.

Finch said there are three primary ways in which he comes up with the ideas for his creative writing.

“When something happens that intrigues or confuses me and I don’t have words for it, I immediately want to write about it and find the language to express it,” Finch said. “Also, any time someone tells me a story and I retell it and people take the time to sit down and listen, then I want to share it with more people in writing. Finally, I like thinking about memories I have from my own life and preserving them in writing.”

Despite his achievements as a young writer, he knows he can always get better at his craft.

“I want to keep getting better at it,” Finch said. “With creative writing, I want to craft better sentences, more nuanced characters, and find the best ways to perfect memories I already have in my mind.”

He has some advice for anyone who wants to grow as a writer:

“No matter what stage you’re at, don’t be afraid to take risks,” Finch said. “Don’t be afraid to write a story that is solely yours because people out there just might be interested in reading it. When you start writing stories with a specific audience in mind, it can hold you back from expressing yourself as far as who you are as an individual. Also, don’t be dissuaded by criticism because it’s only going to make you a better writer in the end.”


Learn More

Read one of Nicholas Finch’s works entitled, “What They Give Children” and learn more about the Master of Arts degree in creative writing.

Alumna volunteers to help schoolchildren in Guam at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

During a time when it seemed like much of the world went into hiding due to COVID-19, alumna Dominique Cruz ’17 was preparing to launch an outreach event in her community.

Cruz said the idea for her service project came after reading an article about how a business in Las Vegas served schoolchildren meals during the pandemic. In the first few days after many schools announced closures, children missed receiving their free- or reduced-price school lunches, which in some situations may have been their only meal of the day.

“That sparked an interest for me,” Cruz said. “I thought, ‘so what happens to our kids here.’”

Today, the 2017 criminal justice graduate lives with her husband, Christopher, and daughter, Draya, in Guam, a U.S. territory located in the northern Pacific Ocean. The island is 35-miles long and home to more than 16,700 people. Just as in the mainland, the schools in Guam had closed during the pandemic, leaving children without their school lunches.

Cruz, who has worked as a victim rights advocate for the Office of the Attorney General of Guam for the past three years, said she has always had a desire to help others, which is what led her to pursue the career she enjoys today and come up with the idea for an outreach event.

So instead of letting go of her concern for the children in Guam, Cruz connected with work colleague Mariana Crisostomo and decided to take action. Crisostomo’s mother, Leann, owned the restaurant Fizz & Co., known for serving gourmet hot dogs with a variety of toppings, and so the pair approached her about organizing an event to feed children and families in need. They posted information about the event on social media and soon had growing interest from others who wanted to help. Even The Guam Daily Post covered the event in advance.

Cruz and Crisostomo distribute free lunches.

On March 19, Cruz, Crisostomo, and her mother organized the lunch event, giving away free 50 bagged lunches that day, which included a hot dog, bag of chips, bottled water, and fruit.

“We had people driving from the end of the island all the way up to get the lunch,” Cruz said.

After the event, the pair gave away an additional 50 to 60 lunches by curbside delivery and then partnered with nonprofit Mañelu, which provides mentoring programs for youth and families, to deliver an additional 150 meals to children in need across Guam.

Cruz said that the experience was incredibly rewarding. “The people who came out were really appreciative and thoughtful,” Cruz said. “They asked if they could bring some meals back to other members of their families.”

While the event was a one-time endeavor, Cruz said it served as an inspiration to others in the community. Shortly after, she noticed that other restaurants and businesses started to do similar events to help the community. It also was not too long after that the Guam Department of Education opened its own grab-and-go lunch program for students.

Cruz said that her desire to help others has always been a part of who she is a person. During her time at Saint Leo University, she interned at the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office to learn more about the work of being a victim advocate and even volunteered as a teacher’s assistant for the child development center at Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Land O’ Lakes, FL. 

Today, she is pursuing her master’s degree in criminal justice through the university’s Center for Online Learning. Her goal is to advance into a career that will allow her to work in forensics and criminal investigations.

While work, family, and studies occupy much of Cruz’s time today, her spirit of service is still present. Cruz shared that she and her husband have recently started a new outreach effort: Every Sunday at noon they go around to different areas of the island and hand out lunches to the homeless.

“My husband and I recognized that there is a need for the homeless on the island,” Cruz said. “It is a difficult time for everyone right now, but by giving out free lunch to those in need, it lifts a small burden off of their shoulders.”

Deacon Charles Onyeneke ’17 has the kind of smile that you can hear.

Charles Onyeneke

You can easily visualize his beaming face and cheerful eyes. His laughter decorates conversation like confetti at a party and unmistakably emanates from a place of joy. For Onyeneke, his joy is in attending to God’s calling.

Onyeneke, who graduated from Saint Leo with a Master of Arts degree in theology in 2017, began his journey to Catholic religious life at his childhood home in Imo State, Nigeria. He recalled his interest began when he was an 8-year-old altar server.

“I fell in love with what priests do in the Eucharistic celebration, changing wine and bread into the blood and body of Christ,” Onyeneke said.

The youngest in a Catholic family of eight children (four sisters and three brothers), Onyeneke said he learned from his parents how the presence of Christ in the Eucharist can help resolve life’s difficulties.

Today, that zeal Onyeneke felt for the celebration of the Eucharist—and to serve people—has translated into years of study that will culminate in his ordination as a priest in the U.S. Catholic Church later this year.

“The Eucharist is the center of my life,” Onyeneke said.

It is no small coincidence then, that Onyeneke was assigned to Corpus Christi Church in the small town of Round Lake, NY, to complete his pastoral year for seminary. The church’s website states its mission as one clearly aligned with Onyeneke’s own: becoming the body of Christ by worshiping God and serving others.

Charles Onyeneke
Deacon Charles Onyeneke at Corpus Christi Church in Round Lake, NY

“He jumped right in without hesitation—into a church with a large congregation and a lot of moving parts,” said Reverend Rick Lesser, pastor of Corpus Christi Church. 

“I love to watch our community when Deacon Charles preaches,” Lesser said. “They become so engaged and are smiling back. He has this ability to elicit in others the joy he feels.”

Onyeneke quickly embraced the entire community, conducting half of the church’s daily Masses and a quarter of the weekend liturgies, developing adult education programs, and becoming involved in children’s faith formation. He also began regular visits to members of the congregation, many of whom are homebound.

Lesser also was impressed with the way Onyeneke adapted to the Catholic Church in America. “He was proactive about learning the difference between the American and Nigerian Catholic Churches,” Lesser said. “And did so with incredibly good grace.”

Onyeneke also has helped to integrate immigrants within the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany (NY). His own experience provides a unique perspective on the challenges they face. 

He is completing his studies for the Licentiate in Sacred Theology, an advanced degree with an emphasis on moral theology at Saint Mary’s Seminary & University in Baltimore, MD. He wrote, and will soon defend, his thesis on undocumented immigrants in the United States.

“Catholic social teaching says that laws should not deny any person human dignity and respect,” Onyeneke said. “Immigrants need a listening ear. Listen to their story, so they can integrate.”

For Onyeneke, as a graduate student living for the first time in the United States, that listening ear belonged to Dr. Randall “Woody” Woodard, chair of graduate studies in theology and religion at Saint Leo University. Realizing that Onyeneke knew little American English and few people but the Benedictine Monks of Saint Leo Abbey with whom he stayed, Woodard went out of his way to welcome Onyeneke into the Saint Leo University fold. 

“Woody was there for me,” Onyeneke said. “I was lonely and had little money, but Woody made sure I had food and asked me to join him at soccer games—sometimes to watch the Lions, and sometimes to play a match.” 

Perhaps more important, Onyeneke says, “We shared stories so that we learned about each other.”

He credits Woodard with helping him “fall in love with the Saint Leo community.” Onyeneke became very involved on campus, writing stories for The Lions’ Pride student newspaper and joining in student activities. He has especially fond memories of the Intercultural Student Association’s dinner, for which he cooked fufu, a West-Central African dish.

At the same time, Onyeneke says that immigrants have responsibility for their success in their adopted home country. Lesser said, “He has a very wise understanding of American culture and understands from his own experience the need for immigrants to adapt to American culture.”

Onyeneke offers this advice to those new to the United States: “Have patience, seek advice, and accept cultural differences. Rather than trying to hold onto your own culture, be open to American culture.”

Soon Onyeneke will complete his year at Corpus Christi Church. He is looking forward to his ordination and future assignment in the Diocese of Albany, NY. Lesser, with whom Onyeneke has roomed during his time at the church, said Onyeneke wakes with the Eucharist at the center of his life, so cheerful that he sings around the residence in the early mornings. 

It’s a joyful noise, reflecting  Onyeneke’s love for God and serving people, which Lesser said he wishes he could bottle. “He’s going to be a gift to the people of God no matter where he goes.”

Photos by Paul Buckowski

Work is underway to build a center for mind, body, and spirit at University Campus.

When construction on the Wellness Center at University Campus is completed in Fall 2021, it will be a physical representation of Saint Leo’s mission, serving students and the greater community in mind, body, and spirit. The center, located on the west end of campus, will provide a variety of features, making it a one-of-a-kind building and possibly the envy of other colleges and universities.

Wellness Center Pool PerspectiveMajestic Views
Sitting 17 feet from the ground, the patio and pool deck will offer a 180-degree view of Lake Jovita.

Resort-Style Pool
The pool will offer two lap lanes, an area to play volleyball and basketball, and a shallow area for lounging. It will be the largest infinity-edge pool at any university or college in Florida.

Healthy Nourishment
A cafe will feature healthy options, including smoothies, salads, wraps, and snacks. An outdoor poolside barbecue and seating area will include a large gas grill and firepit.

Mind, Body, and Spirit
Students will be able to receive services from University Ministry, Counseling & Prevention Services, and Recreation, in addition to routine medical care through a community health care provider.


Fitness Floor
The fitness area on the second floor will provide cardio equipment, free weights and machines, as well as a dance studio with a variety of scheduled class programming.Wellness Center Fitness Floor

Community Health
At the front of the building on the first floor, a community health care provider will offer services to Saint Leo students, employees, and potentially the greater community.Wellness Center Community Health

Functional Space
A large multi-purpose gymnasium overlooking the lake boasts an indoor walking track, and it can be converted for a variety of events—from basketball games and meetings to wedding receptions and formal galas.Wellness Center Functional Space

Renderings courtesy of S3 Design, Inc.


Give to Wellness

Building this new facility on campus will require the financial support of generous donors. If you would like to make a gift in support of the Wellness Center, contact Carla Willis, vice president of University Advancement, Marketing, and Communications, at (352) 588-8644 or carla.willis@saintleo.edu