Each year, Saint Leo University alumni across the generations and around the world live out our core values and contribute to their communities, professions, and causes in a variety of ways. The Saint Leo Alumni Association seeks to celebrate the members of our alumni community and pay tribute to those who have reached remarkable goals either professionally or personally. Please join in congratulating the 2021 and 2022 recipients of the Saint Leo University Alumni Awards.
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Gianfranco Pagan ’21 receiving the 2021 Global Service Award.
Roaring Onward recipient Benjamin Larison ’14 with his family.
Alumni 2021 Awards
Joseph Byrne ’74
Christine Gibree ’85
Gianfranco Pagan ’21
Jerry Blash ’14, Mercy Figueroa ’17, Seth Gross ’17, Anthony Santa ’12, Andrew Specht ’17, ’22
Alumni 2022 Awards
Natoy Baker ’11, ’20
Peter Mulry ’67
James Salgado ’07, ’14
Peter Mulry ’67, James Salgado ’07, ’14
Haywood Barnes ’93
Bobrenti “Brent” Patterson ’21, Mohammed “Ammar” Mohart ’17, Benjamin Larison ’14, Krystal Cox ’12, and Allison Baldwin ’15.
Her Saturdays started at 6 a.m. when she would move from room to room, collecting laundry, cleaning the house, and helping with the cooking. She was 8 years old.
“Growing up, I knew life shouldn’t be like this, but I was taught never to complain,” said Saint Leo student Alexandra Joseph, who graduated this year with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and a minor in political science. “There was a lot of guilt growing up. Home was very stressful. I always felt like I was the outsider intervening in someone else’s life. There was no room for complaints. It was very weird, but I was driven to move forward and move ahead.”
Joseph moved from Haiti to Florida when she was 3, following her mother’s death when she was an infant. As her years in Miami droned on while she was living with an aunt and her family, she never complained. She was lucky, they told her, that she had a place to stay.
Even when she suffered physical abuse, and later sexual abuse inflicted by a family member, Joseph stayed silent. And she remained silent when she was forced to give half of her small paycheck to her family, while still purchasing her own belongings and necessities.
Joseph saved $3,000 for a car while working multiple jobs. But her family took that money, and she never purchased the car.
She faced many struggles with her family life and stayed silent until the day she built up the courage to speak to her school’s social worker and her counselor after her family refused to sign loan forms so that she could attend college. Those two helped her change her life. “The counselor told me college was my only way out,” Joseph said.
It hurt, she said. “You work so hard and think you are finally going to get something, then they show you they are not looking out for you.”
Her family kicked her out of the house when she was an 11th-grader because she attended homecoming, Joseph said, and she was forced to leave behind her passport, birth certificate, and green card (permanent U.S. residence card)—documents she still is struggling to replace.
She turned her hurt into strength. “I was able to graduate from high school despite the struggles,” she said. And, this year, she graduated from Saint Leo and is studying for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT).
Saint Leo University finally gave her a place to let go of the demons and focus on her bright future, she said.
“Law school was always the goal,” Joseph said. “To be told I wasn’t going to college, I was shell-shocked.”
After moving out of the family house, she saw an advertisement for Saint Leo University. “I finally had to check it out,” Joseph said. “It seemed like a ‘God thing.’ I applied, and I got in, and I didn’t look back. It was the best decision I ever made.”
“I just love that I took that leap of faith and the best things are still to come. Saint Leo was the giant change in my life. People paid attention to me. A lot of people advocated for me. If I was having a bad day, people noticed and would ask how I was doing. So I began to practice advocating for myself.”
She spent many sleepless nights at Saint Jude Chapel on campus. “I suffered from insomnia, but if I was going to be up, I wanted to be in a place that gives off energy, that is community and passion,” Joseph said. And that was the campus chapel.
She found the church to be a place to shed her problems and, “I could remember what I had overcome.”
Joseph won the 2020 Scholarship America Dream Award during her sophomore year that paid for her junior- and senior-year tuition. She also became a resident assistant in 2020, which enabled her to continue living year-round in the university residence hall with less financial burden.
During the Spring Semester, she completed an internship with a private defense attorney in Miami. “I am overwhelmed, but I know exactly what I want to be,” Joseph said. “No matter which field of law I decide on, I know I will give the best representation, no matter what it is.”
Even while pursuing her degree, Joseph has made an impact in and outside of the Saint Leo University community. She is one of the co-authors of the book Women Breathe Again, which shares testimonial of women overcoming obstacles; chair of the multicultural and diversity committee of Campus Activities Board (CAB); and a LEAD Scholar, a program for those who wish to develop strong leadership skills. She also created and hosted a program, The Dream Room, for WLSL-FM, 92.5, the university’s radio station. Her goal was to create a safe place in which students could listen to peers discuss issues and events that affect them.
Saint Leo proved to be a perfect fit, Joseph said, offering her support and opportunities. “The first two years were hard because it is expensive. But it helped shape me as a person. Now, I get to advocate for others.”
Several months ago, Kevin Szafran scooped up a soil sample from an apartment complex in Dade City, FL. Little did he know this dirt would contain a bacteriophage to be included in a global database.
Szafran, who graduated from the university in May 2022, had the opportunity to participate in the Science Education Alliance (SEA) Phages program, a project the university joined several years ago. Since 2008, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the University of Pittsburgh have collaborated to facilitate this bacteriophage research initiative for biology students attending more than 150 colleges and universities. Szafran, a biology major focusing on biomedical science, has been part of the two classes specific to phage discovery and analysis.
“We had to collect three environmental samples from three different locations,” Szafran said of the project. “The phage I discovered was from the soil of a flowerbed with fertilizer. I collected it the day after it had rained, so it was moist and seemed like a viable location. For me, only one out of my three samples contained a phage.”
Szafran explained the steps following the sample collection.
“We then go through rounds of amplifying, purifying, and isolating a bacteriophage, which is essentially a virus that infects a bacterial host,” he said. “We send off the sample to the University of Pittsburgh for further analysis in which they sequence the genome to determine which family of bacteriophage it belongs to.”
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This image shows the dimension of the capsid and tail of the phage. It was produced using electron microscopy.
Some phages can cause benign bacteria to become pathogenic (disease-producing) by transferring in pathogenic genes. Other phages use the bacteria as a host to make more viruses before killing them.
The two Saint Leo courses focused on practical research in the use of bacteriophages are BIO 100: Intro to Research – Phage Hunters and BIO 200: Phages II. In addition, a third course related to phages was introduced to biology students in the 2021-2022 academic year. In BIO 300: SEA-Genes, students clone phage genes and express their proteins, ultimately trying to assign a function to those genes.
Szafran named the phage he discovered “Upsilon” in recognition of Saint Leo’s Upsilon Theta chapter of the Kappa Sigma fraternity to which he belongs.
“Jovita” is a phage discovered by junior Gabby Fonseca. She took her sample from an area near a tree stump on the banks of Lake Jovita at University Campus. Among the other Saint Leo phages are “BlueRugrat,” found by Kaishon Showers, and “Katzastrophic” found by Emily Katz.
“It has been a rewarding experience,” Szafran said. “The work I’ve put into this and getting my name on a nationally recognized website is definitely an amazing opportunity. Publications are the epitome of research and are so instrumental in helping me pursue further education.”
Dr. Iain Duffy, an associate professor of biology in the Department of Natural and Applied Sciences, brought the courses to the university four years ago. Duffy teaches all three classes related to phage discovery and analysis.
“Only a small number of phages have been discovered, but how they function has yet to be determined in many cases,” Duffy explained. “These are not your typical college classes. This is real research being done on viruses that nobody has ever seen before. Plus, we have many freshmen and sophomores taking these courses, giving them a leg up as they advance in the program.”
Along with hands-on experiential learning, students’ names are published on a dedicated database webpage hosted on the PhagesDB website. They also may present their findings at the national SEA Symposium and the Florida Academy of Sciences’ annual conference, as well as during Saint Leo’s Academic Excellence Day.
According to Duffy, numerous Saint Leo graduates have applied their experience with this project to their careers. Several have gone on to work at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, FL. A few alumni now work in the cancer center’s cell therapy lab where they are helping to develop cancer treatments, while others have participated in the SPARK internship program at Moffitt.
“The students are becoming much more confident in their lab techniques and are using this experience in their careers,” Duffy said of completing the phage classes.
As for Szafran’s future plans, his goal is to attend medical school and become a physician, potentially specializing in cardiology.
A look at the changing grounds of University Campus
The sounds of drills spinning into freshly cut drywall, electrical saws buzzing into tile, and bulldozers roaring to unearth soil can only mean one thing: Changes are underway at University Campus.
Block by block, the construction of new facilities has helped Saint Leo University keep pace with the growing needs of students throughout the years.
When the university officially transitioned to a four-year college in 1965, the campus grounds were home to just a few buildings. Saint Francis and Crawford halls served as classroom buildings, and Saint Edward, Marmion (completed in 1966), Roderick, and Benoit halls served as dormitories. Shortly after, the college soon offered a student center, 250-seat cafeteria, and library.
As the university experienced growth over the years, more buildings were added. In just the past 10 years, Saint Leo University has focused on the addition of academic buildings and residence halls. University officials hope the trend in this direction will continue as University Campus welcomes record-breaking classes of incoming students in the coming years.
Within the past four years, the university has focused on creating facilities that support an engaging student-life experience. Here we showcase some of the new amenities that have been added to University Campus—or will soon be added—to help provide students with an experience like no other.
A Place for Wellness
In March, Saint Leo University opened the doors to a 59,500-square-foot Wellness Center on the west end of University Campus, located across from Benedictine Hall. The multilevel facility, offering breath-taking views of Lake Jovita, was built to provide much-needed recreational, meeting, and office space for the university. The Wellness Center now houses the university’s Student Recreation and Fitness, Health Services, Counseling Services, and University Ministry departments.
Patio and Pool Deck
One of the center’s most attractive features is its patio and pool deck. Sitting 17 feet from the ground, the pool offers two lap lanes, an area to play volleyball and basketball, and a shallow area for lounging. Café 36, named in honor of the 36 acres of land that started the university, sits on the pool-level floor of the building and serves healthy food options, including smoothies, salads, wraps, and snacks. There is also a poolside barbecue and seating area featuring a large gas grill and fire pit.
Overlooking the pool area and Lake Jovita,the fitness area on the second floor offers cardio equipment, free weights and machines, as well as a group exercise studio with a variety of scheduled class programming.
A large multipurpose 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.
Pool with infinity edge
Lobby and Café 36
Patio and pool deck
Group exercise studio
A Corner for Coffee and Conversation
Coffeehouses have a reputation for being popular gathering spots on college campuses across the United States, but until recently, this hub for student engagement was missing from the Saint Leo Campus scene.
In January 2020, the university converted its mail center building into Benedict’s Coffeehouse, a We Proudly Serve Starbucks™ venue, featuring Starbucks coffees, specialty drinks and teas, and a variety of breakfast and lunch sandwiches, salads, and snacks.
Benedict’s Coffeehouse is located on the east end of the Kirk Hall lawn and offers a comfortable space for students, faculty, staff, and alumni to gather, as well as guests from the surrounding community. There is inside seating and an outside patio area.
Outside patio area
A Showcase of Lion Spirit
While the Marion Bowman Activities Center has received several enhancements since it first opened in 1970, construction is underway to improve the entrance and several interior spaces of this frequently visited facility. Plans include converting the breezeway into an interior, air-conditioned space and making it the main entrance into the center. The Athletics training room and the restrooms also will be renovated and reconfigured. The project is expected to be completed by this summer.
Athletics training room
The Classroom of the Future
With the addition of an undergraduate degree program in robotics and artificial intelligence, Saint Leo University is transforming two existing classrooms in Kirk Hall into a space that will help prepare students for rewarding careers in this growing sector. The new Robotics and Artificial Intelligence Lab is made possible thanks to a $1 million grant received from the state of Florida. It will feature different workstations designed for collaboration and hands-on learning experiences.
At the lab, students will have the opportunity to design programming to interact with Pepper humanoid robots, explore the possibilities with the KUKA pro robotics arm for industrial use, engage with and program a Unitree advanced robot dog, and fly the university’s DJI Tello EDU Drones, which are unmanned vehicles. They will also have the opportunity to compete against other universities in mini robotics soccer tournaments.
New Robotics and Artificial Intelligence Lab in Kirk Hall
Saint Leo University welcomed Consul General of the Federal Republic of Germany Andreas Siegel to University Campus in February. The visit was part of a trip organized by the Pasco Economic Development Council to introduce the consul general to the area and explore opportunities for partnerships.
While at the university, the consul general received a tour of the campus and enjoyed
a lunch and panel discussion with Saint Leo faculty, staff, and students from Germany.
Saint Leo University and the Pasco Sheriff’s Office Florida Forensic Institute for Research, Security, and Tactics (F1RST) have joined forces to fight human trafficking regionally, with a concentration on three counties near University Campus.
The two organizations have helped form the Mel Greene Institute to Combat Human Trafficking, which is named for the late Spring Hill, FL, resident and philanthropist Melvin T. “Mel” Greene. Greene passed away in 2020 at the age of 92 after a life spent helping others in his adopted state of Florida, and beyond. Friends and associates decided that directing some grant resources to this new venture would be a fitting way to carry on his legacy.
Dr. Karin May, assistant professor of criminal justice, is directing the university’s involvement and public-facing programs. “Human trafficking has continued to be a horrible crime that is present within Florida, as well as within national and international borders,” May said.
“But those of us in criminal justice and public safety administration have seen that concentrated attention does help raise awareness of the dangers involved and the means that criminals use to trap children and adults,” May added. “It makes sense for us to focus regionally on Hernando, Citrus, and Pasco counties to heighten and maintain that level of awareness among the public. We are also delivering new learning to college students who are interested in public safety careers and to current law enforcement practitioners who want and need updated material about detection and prosecution of criminals.”
Saint Leo University’s Social Justice Committee hosted its first Saint Leo Run Toward Justice 5K on Martin Luther King Jr. Day (January 17), with the goal of benefiting local organizations that promote social justice initiatives throughout the community. This year, the proceeds from registration fees went to the Migrant Education Program (MEP), which provides services to migrant students and their families through Hillsborough County (FL) Public Schools.
Because of COVID-19 safety protocols, the event was virtual this year, but the Social Justice Committee hopes to make this an annual event. In addition, the Social Justice Committee held a supply drive in the fall to benefit the Migrant Education Program. School and cleaning supplies and personal care items were collected at the university to be donated to the MEP.
Participants were able to complete the 5K any day between January 1, and January 21, 2022, and they could run, walk, or use any mobility assistance device to complete 3.1 miles. The first Saint Leo Run Toward Justice 5K had 80 participants and raised $2,480 for the MEP.
“We are very excited to be able to support the Migrant Education Program with a monetary donation as well as all the supplies we collected during November and December,” said Heather Johnson, assistant director of program approval for the College of Education and Social Services, who also was one of the event organizers.
Saint Leo’s Social Justice Committee is comprised of students, faculty, and staff who
are working to explore issues of racism and move the university forward with honest conversations and initiatives.
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.
Saint Leo welcomed the Reverend Randall Meissen as university chaplain in October 2020, and he now leads the University Ministry team. Meissen is a member of the religious order, the Legion of Christ, and was ordained as a priest in 2014. Prior to coming to Saint Leo, he served as sacramental associate at Our Savior Parish and the University of Southern California Caruso Catholic Center in Los Angeles. He also is a doctoral candidate in the history department of USC.
LEARN ABOUT FATHER RANDALL IN 15 QUESTIONS
Describe yourself in three words: Inquisitive, analytic, compassionate
Where did you grow up and what makes it special to you? I grew up on a small farm just outside of Salisbury, MO. The farm was a wonderful place to grow up, surrounded by the outdoors and open countryside. A good part of my extended family is in the area, so I will always treasure memories of a childhood surrounded by faith and family.
What was your first job? There was never a shortage of chores to be done on the farm. However, the first job I remember getting paid for was cutting weeds out of my uncle’s soybean field.
When did you know that the priesthood was your future? The call to the priesthood was an unexpected turn of events in my life. I went to college as a biology major and was extremely focused on getting into medical school as a career goal. However, after being involved in a car accident that took the life of one of my friends, I started to re-examine the big questions in life and turned intensely to prayer. Amid that process of deepening in my faith and becoming more involved with student ministry on campus, I experienced a call to the priesthood and decided to enter the seminary with the Legionaries of Christ after graduating from college.
Who is your favorite saint and why? My favorite saint has to be John Paul II. He left a profound impact on the modern papacy and brought a new enthusiasm of spreading the gospel to all corners of the world. The so-called “John Paul II generation” of Catholics is a fruit of his outreach to young people at World Youth Days and has been a source of great innovation and revitalization in the church in my lifetime.
What is your favorite Bible verse/Scripture? One of my favorite passages is the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11–32. That parable is powerful in how it describes the capacious mercy of God who, like a good father, hastens to embrace a lost child upon his return home.
Where is the most interesting place you have ever been? I once had the chance to tour the papal gardens around Castel Gandolfo (the traditional summer retreat for the popes) with the Vatican’s top Latin translator as a guide.
What excites you the most about Saint Leo University? Our students are the most exciting part! I love that our community is amazingly diverse. We must have a record for the most students from small island nations. Sometimes it stretches my geographic knowledge to the limit; I had never met anyone from Cabo Verde or from the Commonwealth of Dominica before coming to Saint Leo.
How would you describe your homily style? You probably should ask students for a more objective opinion! In preparing homilies, I start by praying over the day’s readings and asking for light from the Holy Spirit. I try to keep things lively with stories and examples connecting the Bible message to students’ lives.
Is there a myth about priests that you would like to dispel? I hope I can dispel the myth that priests are always boring! As the adage goes, “a sad saint is a bad saint,” and I see priesthood as a divinely inspired quest for sanctity…not a boring endeavor.
What do you think our Catholic Identity calls us to do? Catholic universities are animated by a Christian anthropology that affirms each person as having a transcendent destiny and a worldview that sees continuity in truth, goodness, and beauty. This goes beyond merely fostering a higher education environment where faith reflection and practice are welcomed alongside rigorous academic study.
Do you have any hobbies and what are they? In my free time, I enjoy hiking, running, Ultimate Frisbee, kayaking, and exploring parks and museums.
What is your favorite song, artist, TV show, podcast, and/or book? I love [Giovanni Battista] Pergolesi’s hauntingly beautiful setting of the Stabat Mater, a hymn addressed to the Blessed Virgin Mary as she stood at the foot of the cross. The fact Pergolesi composed it in his final days of life makes it even more moving.
What are you enjoying about Saint Leo and Florida? I am amazed by the pristine natural beauty of this area of Florida. Our lakeside campus is a treasure, and I have also enjoyed taking day trips to some of the nearby crystal-clear, spring-fed rivers and to Florida’s beaches. Winter in Florida is hard to beat!
What is something that most people do not know about you? Sometimes people are surprised that I know a lot about insects. During high school and college, I had my own small business that sold insect collections to biology teachers, and I trapped and collected most of the insects myself. I paid for my first car in college out of the profits from selling insects. Dead grasshoppers for a set of wheels was a great trade!
Each year, Saint Leo University alumni across the generations and around the world live out our core values and contribute to their communities, professions, and causes in a variety of ways. The Saint Leo Alumni Association seeks to celebrate the members of our alumni community and pay tribute to those who have reached remarkable goals either professionally or personally. Please join us in congratulating the recipients of Saint Leo University 2020 Alumni Awards.
Benedictine Spirit Award
Mary Kay “Katie” Calvert ’60 attended Holy Name Academy. In 1952, Calvert attended a summer camp held by the Benedictine Sisters of Florida. That camp changed her life and ignited a lifelong love affair with all things Holy Name. The Benedictine Sisters fostered her deep faith and four years later, granted her a scholarship to attend high school at Holy Name Academy. Upon graduation, Calvert went on to become a registered nurse. She later received a master’s degree in education to teach middle school. Calvert’s devotion to Saint Leo led her to support the Sister Mary Grace Riddles Endowed Scholarship, and she also continues to annually donate to the Benedictine Sisters of Florida. Calvert fondly remembers the nuns, priests, and friends that she made and who made such an impact on her life. She especially loved the dances that were held at the Saint Leo College Preparatory School each month.
Distinguished Alumnus/a Award
William “Spider” Biossat ’69 graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology from University Campus. He dedicated his professional career to law enforcement, in which he began by working for the Florida Marine Patrol Narcotics Division and then later joined the Drug Enforcement Agency as a special agent. He later worked as a narcotics investigator for U.S. Customs, which led to further assignments as a resident agent-in-charge. Biossat and his wife, Darlos, have three children, who he believes are his greatest achievement. Biossat credits the time he spent at Saint Leo as shaping him to be the person he is today. He has fond memories of the love and support that he received from faculty and especially his fraternity brothers.
Reverend Jonathan A. Zingales ’71 graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Since the age of 9, Zingales knew he wanted to become a priest, and he was ordained in 1976. Throughout the years, he has served as a teacher, vice principal, and principal of Catholic high schools, and in 1985, he was selected as the secretary to the Superior General of the Benedictine Order in Rome. While in Rome, he graduated magna cum laude and earned his degree in canon law. He holds the office of Defender of the Bond and Promoter of Justice. Zingales is passionate about mentoring and educating children and has been a member of the Benedictine High School Board of Directors. Zingales fondly recalls how the Saint Leo University faculty and staff always listened to the students and were always there to help.
Roaring Onward Award – Class of 2020
Heavenly Aguilar’18, ’20 graduated from the Center for Online Learning with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in criminal justice and and is in law school. She started a nonprofit organization, Scholars for Youth Empowerment, which focuses on helping low income youths. She also volunteers to assist the elderly and fundraises for the arts. Aguilar’s favorite Saint Leo memory is the kindness of her professors. While attending Saint Leo, she was going through a tough time in her personal life and her professors helped to keep her studies on track.
Dr. Bradley Brooks ’13 graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology from University Campus. He is in his fourth year as a psychiatry resident at the University of South Alabama Health and is serving as chief psychiatry resident. He was honored with the distinction of being named psychiatry teaching resident in 2019. He tries to exude excellence each day by helping students with their academics. Brooks’ favorite memory of Saint Leo is the late nights spent studying with fellow biology students.
Brian Davison ’16 received his MBA through the on-ground master’s program. Today Davison is the vice president of basketball development and affairs for NBA team, the Milwaukee Bucks. Prior to this role, Davison served as business director at Nike, where he started out at a Nike Factory Store as a retail manager. Because Davison had a wonderful mentor, he was inspired to pay it forward and mentors young adults who are looking for employment. Davison’s favorite memory of Saint Leo is receiving his MBA while working at Nike. He was learning about Theory of Concept and was able to apply what he learned to his position.
Caitlin Parrish’16, ’18 graduated from the Center for Online Learning with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in criminal justice and is employed by the Tampa (FL) Police Department as a Neighborhood Affairs and Crime Free Program officer, in the same district as her father, who is a senior sergeant. She began her career as a 911 Communications dispatcher and has moved up through the ranks. She is working on becoming a police officer. Parrish’s favorite memory from her time at Saint Leo was being a part of the Learning Enhancement for Academic Progress (LEAP) program. The program helped her transition to college life, and she still keeps in touch with the other 25 members of the group today.
Cheyenne Simmons ’14 graduated with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from University Campus. She is employed by the Orange County (FL) Sheriff’s Office as a deputy sheriff. She also serves as a field training officer and helps prepare new police academy graduates for their positions as deputies. Simmons is enrolled in a graduate program in forensic wildlife conservation, and she hopes to blend her passion for wildlife with her professional experience in law enforcement. Simmons’ greatest Saint Leo memories are from her time as a Greek sister and also the traditions and manger scene at Christmas. “Saint Leo University was my home,” Simmons.
Teacher. Coach. Mentor. Administrator. Leader. These are all words used to describe Saint Leo alumnus Mike Lastra ’15. His passion is for lifting others up, helping them grow as students and educators. And he gives back to his alma mater in one very tangible way: He shares his love of learning and teaching with current Saint Leo University students and the greater education community.
Lastra earned his Master of Education degree with a specialization in educational leadership in 2015 from Saint Leo. He was named principal of Brooksville Elementary School in Hernando County, FL, in 2018. In addition to being the principal, Lastra is pursuing a Doctor of Education degree in school leadership at Saint Leo, and also serves as an adjunct faculty member for the university.
The road to becoming an educational leader started with a desire to be an athletics coach. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Chowan University in North Carolina and began teaching high school biology in 2004. “I taught high school for 12 years and coached football and wrestling,” Lastra said. “It was fun, and it was rewarding.”
He said it was a natural progression to become an administrator, something he did in 2015, when he became the assistant principal of Eastside Elementary, also in Hernando County. “I really started taking more leadership roles as a teacher-leader,” Lastra said. “The coach in me made me want to do that.”
It was suggested that he move into administration. “I never had taught a day of elementary,” he said. “I went from high school teacher to assistant elementary principal. It was a very different jump. The principal who hired me said, ‘leaders are leaders, and I can teach you what you need to be an elementary assistant principal.’”
From that point forward, Lastra’s leadership abilities and skills grew. He found great value in his Saint Leo education, which helped prepare him for his leadership role, Lastra said. “When we talk about the administrative, planning, and learning domains, the [Master of Education] program definitely prepares you for that,” he said. “With the Saint Leo program, we had to get practicum hours. That really rounds you as a leader.”
While some people may think that an online degree program isn’t as strong as the in-classroom experience, Lastra said at Saint Leo that is not the case because of the people—the dedicated faculty, staff, and students.
“I think the sense of community at Saint Leo, the teachers, and those working with Saint Leo in many capacities, truly prepare their graduate and undergraduate students to become teachers and administrators. “I don’t know of any other university where you get that sense of community,” Lastra said. “Even with the online programs, there is that feeling of being a part of the community.”
‘A Teacher’s Principal’
Now, Lastra contributes to the next generation of teachers as well as those who already are working in school districts throughout Florida. In addition to Saint Leo students, Lastra and his school works with students at schools across the state.
“Mike’s impact ranges from pre-service teachers, to university undergraduate and graduate programs, to elementary students and their families, his teachers, and the greater education community,” said Dr. Holly Atkins, chair of Saint Leo’s undergraduate education program.
He has conducted presentations for Saint Leo’s Teacher Technology Summer Institute, sharing innovative best practices for the meaningful use of technology in K-12 classrooms, Atkins said. “Teachers are often heard saying, ‘I want to go work for him!’ He is what I would call a ‘teacher’s principal.’ He walks the walk, doesn’t just talk the talk.”
Lastra has become something of a “tech guru” for educators and educators-to-be, teaching them how to use technology in the classroom and reach their students using it.
For Saint Leo students, he is a favorite speaker for Dr. Rachel Hernandez’ educational technology class. “For the last five semesters, he has been hosting a technology field trip each semester at his school,” Hernandez said. “The [Saint Leo] students tour the classrooms to see [elementary school] students engaged in various tools that enhance learning. He then takes the students and gives a debrief so that they can ask questions.”
Lastra said he thinks it is important for Saint Leo’s education students to visit with tech-savvy teachers. “It’s so powerful for Saint Leo students to see what they’ve been learning in their classroom, working in real life,” he said. “Some of the students say they learned more that day than all year!”
He also is a popular adjunct instructor for the university, Atkins said. “He shares his real-world knowledge teaching EDU 428: Educational Governance,” she said. “Students learn the legal, ethical rights, and responsibilities of classroom teachers through the leadership of an instructor who lives these principles each day.”
To encourage faculty at his school to engage in after-school professional development, Lastra holds “Tech Taco Tuesdays.”
“Teachers attend the technology-focused professional development, and he feeds them,” Atkins said. “Most often, he is the presenter. This is so important in creating a culture in which teachers actively see their principal right there with them—working together to support the school community.”
While he is serious about the business of being an educator, Lastra’s favorite thing is “acting like a kid all the time.” He participates in dress-up days at the elementary school, dressing in silly outfits and costumes, which he says “keeps him young at heart.”
Lastra also persists in his own education. “The love of learning is really just being a continuous learner,” he said. “Whether it’s going to a conference, reading up on the latest trends, or sharing our knowledge. When I stop learning, I should really retire!”
He also looks to hire teachers who will follow in his footsteps. “My main thing is I want a teacher who is passionate and is all about kids,” he said. He advises anyone who wants to be an educator to “remember your why” and keep the reason for being an educator at the forefront.
During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, Saint Leo University faculty and staff demonstrated a commitment to our community in a variety of ways—from facilitating free educational webinars to help small business owners and first responders to offering complimentary, on-demand courses designed to help individuals relieve stress.
When news about the availability of a COVID-19 vaccine surfaced, Saint Leo University stepped up in another way by offering to serve as a vaccine distribution site for the Florida Department of Health in Pasco County. Since January, more than 25,000 members of the public have passed through University Campus to receive the Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine.
In April, the university was fortunate to offer its own vaccine clinic event for members of the university community. Faculty, staff, students, alumni, and their household members were able to come to University Campus and receive a vaccine through a drive-thru event.
Jessica Van Guilder ’12, ’15 was among the alumni who received a vaccine at University Campus. She lives in close-by Land O’ Lakes, FL, and still keeps in touch with fellow alumni and staff at the university.
“I decided it was one of the best chances for me to get the vaccine early,” she said.
Elissa Noblitt, who graduated from the university in 2020, also came to University Campus from Orlando to get a vaccine. “I drove down because I trusted Saint Leo, and I knew that the university would run the operation well,” Noblitt said.
Saint Leo University unveiled its newest amenity, a 12-station Esports Arena, in March, in Apartment Building 5 at University Campus. The arena serves as the home to the university’s new esports team, and when not in use by the team, other students may use the state-of-the-art gaming stations.
Esports is one of the most rapidly growing sports and is on track to surpass $1 billion in revenue this year, according to Business Insider’s Esports Ecosystem Report 2021.
Saint Leo’s esports team is a school-sponsored and funded club sport that fields competitive teams in League of Legends, Rocket League, and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate games. People worldwide can access the Lions’ play via Twitch while others can watch via TVs in Building 5’s lobby.
For the first time in program history, the Sunshine State Conference (SSC) Tournament title belongs to Saint Leo men’s basketball for the 2020-2021 season. It was no easy feat, as the team had to take down the 25-time conference and SSC tournament champions, Florida Southern College. The Lions won 83-70 at the tournament held in March at University Campus.
The Lions (7-1) took the title with exceptional play from Rusty Moorer and Frank Webb Jr. Both players, who were named to the SSC All-Tournament Team, put up double-digits as Moorer led all scorers with 28 on the night. Webb notched another double-double with 21 points and 10 rebounds on the way to earning the Tournament Most Valuable Player honor.
Jared Coomer heard his name called for the all-tournament team after his performance throughout the tournament, helping the Lions achieve a game-high of 13 rebounds and 12 on the defensive front. Saint Leo claimed the rebounding battle, 50-42.
Wade Coomer provided the spark the Green and Gold needed by adding 11 points off the bench and hit clutch threes down the stretch to build the lead for the Lions.
After winning the tournament, Saint Leo men’s basketball earned a total of five All-SSC awards, including Newcomer of the Year and Coach of the Year. Conference coaches selected Frank Webb Jr. as the Newcomer of the Year, while Coach Lance Randall was tabbed the Coach of the Year.
Senior Shane Bracken of the Saint Leo men’s track team traveled to Allendale, MI, to represent the Green & Gold at the 2021 NCAA Division II Outdoor Track & Field National Championship, whichtook place May 27–29.
While Bracken was seeking the Lions’ first individual title in track program history, he ended up receiving his second career outdoor track All–American honor and placing eighth in the final.
Bracken, who entered the championship with the second–fastest qualifying time, hovered between sixth and eighth throughout the entire race. The Foxford, Ireland, native completed the distance in 3:54.01—just a second off the winning pace of 3:52.95.
Bracken took eighth overall in his first appearance at the NCAA Championships in the 1500m in 2019, running 3:59.93, a time which would have netted him 12th in 2021.
The Saint Leo women’s lacrosse program celebrated its first-ever Intercollegiate Women’s Lacrosse Coaches Association (IWLCA) All-Americans this spring. Saint Leo women’s lacrosse attacker Ashlee Wilsynski, midfielder Delaney Chrisco, and defender Ashley Salvett were among the 48 student-athletes selected for one of three 2021 Division II All-American teams.
Saint Leo University was one of 21 institutions represented in the organization’s All-American accolades. Wilsynski, Chrisco, and Salvett each received third-team honors among their respective positions.
“We have been fortunate in the Sunshine State Conference to regularly compete against some of the best players in DII, but today is the first day we can say at Saint Leo that some of the best wear our uniforms,” said Caitlin Hansen, head coach of Saint Leo women’s lacrosse. “To have three players named IWLCA All-Americans is amazing for these individuals, their teammates, and our program. I am so proud!”
Saint Leo women’s lacrosse wrapped up the shortened 2021 season with a 5-5 overall record, going 3-3 in the Sunshine State Conference. The Lions finished the year ranked 22nd among the IWLCA Division II Coaches’ Poll and fourth among the seven conference teams that opted into competing during the season.
Saint Leo University is taking Dining Services on the road. The university officially opened its food truck, The Hungry Lion, in February at University Campus.
The Hungry Lion will provide fresh, delicious food “on the go’” in a variety of locations, both on- and off-campus. Simultaneously, the pictures displayed on the 34-foot truck give community members a peek at the campus.
Items on The Hungry Lion’s menu include steak, turkey, or black bean burgers; pizzas; melts; grinders; hand-cut chips dusted with cheese; and rosemary garlic butter Tuscan fries. The menu changes seasonally said Dining Services Director and Executive Chef Justin Bush.
The truck is busy serving those on campus, and it will travel in the future for community and university events.