Saint Leo hosted a kickoff event in January at University Campus for Homes For Our Troops (HFOT), a nonprofit organization dedicated to “building houses and rebuilding lives” for the country’s severely injured post-9/11 veterans.
HFOT builds single-level homes that are equipped with more than 40 special adaptations to assist injured veterans. These include widened doorways, lowered countertops, roll-under cooktops and sinks, and roll-in showers, all designed for wheelchair accessibility. The organization builds homes and provides assistance after delivery of the home to help rebuild the person’s life.
The organization is building a home in San Antonio, FL, for Michael Monthervil, a retired U.S. Army specialist who was wounded in 2014 in a training exercise while deployed
In the coming months, the Saint Leo University community will have more opportunities to support Monthervil as his home is built.
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.
After celebrating commencement on University Campus this April, Dr. William J. Lennox Jr. announced his retirement as president of Saint Leo University.
Lennox became the university’s ninth president in 2015, following the retirement of Dr. Arthur F. Kirk Jr. A retired U.S. Army lieutenant general, Lennox previously served as superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy.
“When I was asked to assume the role of president, it was always my intention to serve, in a way, as a transition leader between the long service of Dr. Kirk and a candidate who could serve for a decade or longer,” Lennox said.
Lennox, who served as a university trustee prior to being named president, said he knows he is leaving great faculty, staff, alumni, and students. He said will miss the people most of all and will forever be a Lion.
“It goes without saying that the board is grateful for Bill’s service,” said Saint Leo University Board of Trustees Chair Mary O’Keefe ’76. “He assumed the role of president at a challenging time for us and his dedication to the university has been an example for us all. Both personally and professionally, we will miss him.”
‘‘Join the Army—See the World” boasts the well-known U.S. Army recruiting advertisement. While seeing the world certainly was a motivating factor for Captain Morgan Mander ’06 to join the military, she never expected she would visit 39 countries during a 36-month assignment in Europe.
With a love of travel instilled in her by her parents, she began an education and career that has led her to places far away from her hometown of Dade City, FL, near University Campus.
Athletic aspirations kept her close to home as she chose to attend Saint Leo University. As a Lion, she played volleyball and tennis along with a few cross country runs. In 2006, she received the Elaine Evans Spirit of Saint Leo Award at the annual National Girls and Women in Sports Banquet, honoring her outstanding leadership and sportsmanship.
Capt. Mander was not solely focused on Saint Leo athletics, however; she graduated with honors with a major in biology and a chemistry minor. Tackling athletics and a challenging academic schedule prepared her for what was ahead.
A love of animals and caring for them steered her to studying veterinary medicine. Besides the usual dogs and cats, Capt. Mander’s mother taught her how to rehabilitate orphaned squirrels, birds, and opossums. She also raised chickens and rabbits through 4-H. While in high school, she worked at the Dade City Animal Clinic.
“I probably wanted to be a vet since I was 3 or 4,” she said. “I even received a white lab coat one Christmas.”
Following her graduation from Saint Leo, she enrolled at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, where she earned the F. Edward Hébert Armed Forces Health Professions Scholarship. She graduated with Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and Master of Public Health degrees in 2010, and entered the U.S. Army as a captain.
While in veterinary school, the travel for Capt. Mander began. For a conservation medicine course—the Envirovet Program—she spent three weeks in South Africa. “One main focus was the One Health Initiative,” she said. “Disciplines need to work together to obtain animal, human, and environmental health.”
That trip spurred her interest in global health. “An estimated 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases come from animals,” she said. “These diseases can then be transferred to humans. An interest in these relationships at their interfaces is what drove me to get my master’s in public health.”
While she unrealistically was hoping for a coastal assignment with the Army, Capt. Mander found herself at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota after completing her initial training at Fort Sam Houston, TX.
As a military veterinarian, Capt. Mander not only takes care of military working dogs, but also cares for the pets of servicemembers, while providing their owners with public health education. Also, one of the little known duties of military veterinarians is ensuring food safety and security. They check shipments of food and inspect food-processing plants.
Capt. Mander’s most recent assignment found her responsible for veterinary care in Spain and Portugal for three years. She also visited three African countries for work. “But most of the rest of my travel has been leisure travel,” she said.
When her parents, Chip and Deanna Mander, came to visit her in Spain, there was no staying home. “I wanted to go see the world,” she said, laughing. The Manders made a road trip to the Balkans and cruised the Baltic Sea, among other travels. “The off-the-beaten-path places stick out in my mind,” she said of her trips.
Among her favorite travel moments are snowshoeing in Slovenia, hiking in Guatemala, and visiting the tulip gardens at Keukenhof Gardens outside of Amsterdam.
“The toughest part [of her overseas assignment] was being away from family and friends,” Capt. Mander said.
Her biggest regret: not learning the language while in Spain. “I learned mostly food words,” she said of her Spanish skills, “but my schedule was irregular and finding time for the classes was difficult.”
Her time at Saint Leo prepared her both academically and personally for her post-graduate education and career. “I especially appreciate Saint Leo’s core values of community and excellence,” she said.
As a base veterinarian, she experienced the camaraderie of the military family and put into practice the university’s core value of community. The leadership skills she learned on the gym floor and the tennis courts helped her lead soldiers during her last assignment.
Now, Capt. Mander is at Fort Campbell, KY, assigned to a Veterinary Service Support field unit. “The unit is actually currently deployed,” she said, so another trip could be in her future.
She hopes to pursue more travel opportunities and to focus on one-health issues. “I just love learning and trying to solve complex health concerns,” she said.
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.
Saint Leo has a proud tradition of helping to educate active-duty military, veterans, and their families—no matter where they are located. These two student stories are examples of the many students who benefit from Saint Leo’s commitment to serving those who serve.
Leo Guzman ’13
Stationed in Afghanistan, Leo Guzman is a sergeant first class in the U.S. Army. He earned his associate degree from Saint Leo in 2013 and now is working on his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. “I chose Saint Leo for my education because it had a degree plan that attracted my interest, the mascot was a lion, and we share a name,” he explained.
Over the course of his military career, he has traveled to Iraq, Germany, Kosovo, Kuwait, and Qatar. He hopes to walk across the graduation stage at University Campus, retire from the U.S. Army, and start a career as a Junior ROTC instructor. For now, he proudly waves the Saint Leo flag.
“My experience as a Saint Leo student is indescribable. I have been a student in [an education center] classroom; I have taken VTT classes and online classes. The flexibility that Saint Leo has offered is top-notch.”
Katelyn Flanagan ’15
Katelyn Flanagan met her future husband, Scott, during her senior year of high school when she was taking a college-level class at the local community college in Lancaster, PA.
Four years later, they married, and with Scott in the U.S. Air Force, Katelyn began her journey as a military spouse. These days, they are stationed in Spangdahlem, Germany, and she is taking advantage of all the online opportunities that Saint Leo has to offer. She finished her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice last year, graduating cum laude. She even traveled to University Campus to take part in the commencement ceremony. Now, she is pursuing her master’s degree in criminal justice: critical incident management.
While she studies for her master’s degree, Flanagan is in the application process to become an officer in the Air Force. She and her husband should return stateside in 2017, but Saint Leo will be with her wherever she goes.
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.