Military Veterans Share Their Saint Leo Story

November 10, 2017

Watch a video as Saint Leo alumni and U.S. Army veterans Mercy and Luis Figueroa share their Saint Leo stories.

Since 1973, Saint Leo has been a proud educator of active-duty military, veterans, and their families. Mercy and Luis Figueroa of Spring Hill, FL, have benefitted from the university’s commitment to serving those who serve.

The Figueroas earned bachelor’s degrees from Saint Leo in April 2017, and Mercy delivered the student address at their commencement ceremony for Saint Leo WorldWide. 

High school sweethearts, the Figueroas met in New York. Mercy was born in Havana, Cuba, where her father was held as a political prisoner. Helped by the Catholic Church, the family made their way first to Spain and then to New York. She grew up in Brooklyn while Luis grew up in the Bronx.

Luis joined the U.S. Army first with Mercy following. “He said, ‘Sweetheart, you would love this.’ I was a couch potato. I trained a year before joining. We went to Germany together.” 

photo of Mercy Figueroa

Mercy served in the U.S. Army for four years. While on a road march when she was pregnant with daughter, Gabriella, Mercy suffered a placental abruption, and Gabby was born prematurely at 24 weeks with cerebral palsy. The Figueroas faced a choice and decided Mercy would leave her military career to care for Gabby.

Luis, a staff sergeant, has served in the military 21 years, and Mercy transitioned from active- duty military to being a supportive military spouse. All the while, Luis has encouraged her, too.

“He has taught me how to do so many things so that I can be independent when he is gone,” Mercy said.  “He was like, ‘Grab that power tool!’ I’ve hung drywall while he was gone; I’ve built a fence.”

Saint Leo faculty and staff appreciate that military men and women have challenging schedules and ever-changing priorities. As the Figueroas discovered, these students can expect understanding and flexibility as they pursue their degrees.

Photo of luis figueroa

Luis was stationed in Fort Lewis, WA, and while serving in Iraq, he read about Saint Leo. “It piqued my interest,” he said. “Then I came down here and realized the campus was close. In 2011, I was assigned into my unit here, and I started the first semester, and they pulled me back on active duty. It was a high-priority mission. I was gone all the time and not near a computer. I had to take a break. I was active duty for three years. As soon as I didn’t have to do another year, I signed up for a math class and a management class. My dad had passed during the semester and had to go to New York. I said, ‘When I get a chance I’m going to come back and finish this.’ In Fall 2014, I started again, and I never turned back.”

For Mercy, continuing her education was challenging. Not only was she taking care of a child with special needs, but also caring for sons Isaac, now a Saint Leo student, and teenager Conner, who the Figueroas adopted from the foster care system.

“Once I got Gabby medically stable, I started classes,” she said. Mercy started classes at Pasco-Hernando State College and earned an associate degree from Saint Leo’s Adult Education Center at PHSC. Luis encouraged her to pursue her bachelor’s degree. “I told her, ‘I think you’re really going to enjoy going to Saint Leo.’ I have not had a bad class. It’s a good learning environment.’ ”

Mercy said fear held her back, but Derek Saunier, assistant director of the Adult Education Center at University Campus-PHSC, helped her conquer her fear. “I knew the school was already committed to me,” she said. “He had my back. It makes a huge difference.”

She graduated summa cum laude  with a Bachelor of Science degree in criminal justice: criminalistics, while Luis also graduated summa cum laude  with a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration: technology management. 

Now both are enrolled in master’s programs at Saint Leo, and they are grateful for the opportunities and support the university offered them.

As we celebrate Veterans Day, Saint Leo is grateful for the service Mercy and Luis Figueroa have given to their country. We also thank our alumni, students, faculty, and staff who are veterans.