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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.  

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.

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.

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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.

At Saint Leo University, we have much to be proud of. Here is just some of the good news from the recent months.


MSFS17-(1)-goodSaint Leo University earned the 2017 Military Spouse Friendly School® designation by Victory Media, publisher of G.I. Jobs®, Military Spouse, Vetrepreneur® and STEM Jobs℠ resources. The university was ranked fifth in the nation among private institutions with 10,000 students or more.


Capture.jpg-goodIn March, Saint Leo University partnered with the Military Makeover Team for an episode of Military Makeover airing on Lifetime Television®, featuring an interview with University President Bill Lennox.


USAA-Foundation-Logo-goodIn July, the university was pleased to learn that the USAA Foundation is continuing its scholarship and financial aid support for active-duty military, veterans, and their families. The USAA Foundation and Saint Leo have enjoyed a partnership since 1994.


Leadership-Saint-Leo

Leadership Saint Leo, the university’s program to develop and train leaders, which is conducted by CODA Partners Inc., was honored at the LEAD2017 forum hosted by HR.com in Nashville, TN. The program was recognized in the following categories: first place Best Third Party Channel Partner/Customer Training Program; second place Best Use of Executive Coaching; fourth place Best Use of Team Building; fifth place Best Mentoring Program; and sixth place Best Experienced/Senior Leaders Program.


Ana-DiDonato-2Ana DiDonato ’00, ’06, associate vice president for Student Success at Saint Leo University, recently was named state director for the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA).


Sharmaine-Burr-(1)-goodIn May, Sharmaine Burr ’17, a Bachelor of Social Work student who studied at the Tampa Education Center was named the BSW Student of the Year for Tampa Bay Unit of the National Association of Social Workers – Florida. It is the first time that a Saint Leo student has been selected for the award.


Alex “Pancho” Carrera, a junior at University Campus, passed away on September 11, 2016. A graduate of Fort Pierce Central High School, he was born in Guerrero, Mexico. Fellow students remember him for his “huge smile and contagious happiness.”


Brother Benedict Cooper of Saint Leo Abbey passed away on December 30, 2016. He lived on the Abbey grounds following the death of his wife, and he made his oblation in 2011. The monks of Saint Leo Abbey remember him for his smile and happy demeanor. He dutifully worked in the sacristy, keeping everything orderly and clean, and he prided himself on being a singer in the St. Petersburg cathedral choir.


Nicholas Cusson-Ducharme (aka Nickk Cusson) passed away on December 31, 2016 near his home in Winooski, VT. A senior majoring in accounting, Nickk took classes at University Campus and online. He was active in the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity.


Clarence H. Johnson, an MBA student at the Tampa Education Center, passed away on October 31, 2016. He was a resident of Temple Terrace, FL. Before enrolling at Saint Leo, he earned a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Florida. An enthusiastic traveler, he found joy in music, food, and art.

 


J. Roy Dee ’49
September 30, 2016

Richard T. Slade ’50
January 9, 2017

Martha (Pike) Huizenga ’61
January 3, 2017

Patrice M. Chardain ’62
August 9, 2015

George J. Kennedy ’67
November 23, 2016

Michael F. Miron ’67
September 1, 2016

Michael A. Milardo ’68
August 16, 2016

James “Jay” Kenney ’69
June 18, 2016

Pierre P. Lafitte ’69
September 24, 2016

William “Ernie” Chatman ’72
July 24, 2016

Charles M. Durian ’73
November 6, 2015

Kevin J. Kiernan ’77
November 7, 2016

LTC Harold G. Beddow ’80
May 9, 2014

Joyce M. Dudley-England ’80
December 17, 2015

Foriest S. Rivenbark ’81
July 18, 2016

Walter C. Capron Jr. ’82
January 5, 2016

Kenneth A. Kozbiel ’82
September 29, 2016

Laurence E. Higgins ’84
August 24, 2016

Shelley L. Kelly ’84
January 24, 2014

Jennifer B. Canalizo ’86
December 9, 2014

Hugh U. Downing ’87
August 7, 2013

Ronald W. Hinson ’89
August 31, 2016

Kevin Flynn ’95
July 27, 2016

Philip P. Royal ’98
July 18, 2016

David S. Flowers ’00
November 3, 2016

Tommy W. Reagan ’03
August 22, 2016

Robert A. Behnke ’11
September 1, 2016

Helen Crittenden ’11
March 20, 2015

Elimisha M. Gates ’13
August 23, 2016

Yvonne Johnson ’13
August 23, 2016

Ann Marie Gildemeyer ’14
July 22, 2016

Tiffanie M. Hughess ’15
July 18, 2016