Online Graduate Donates $4 Million for New School of Business Building

April 28, 2010

Online_Graduate Don Tapia, an alumnus who received his bachelor’s degree in business administration through the Center for Online Learning at Saint Leo University and then returned for an online MBA from Saint Leo, has donated $4 million to the university.  His gift––the largest single gift in the school’s history––will be used to help construct a state-of-the-art facility that will house the university’s School of Business.  The building will be named in appreciation of Tapia’s extraordinary gift. 

The facility will add 50,000 square feet to the university’s main campus, housing nine additional classrooms, a large lecture hall/board room, computer labs, and a broadcast technology suite.  The building is set to open in time to welcome students for the fall 2011 semester. 

“This transformative gift will enable Saint Leo University to continue to provide a world-class education not only through the Center for Online Learning, but at a state-of-the-art facility at the main campus in Florida,” said Dr. Arthur F. Kirk, Jr., president of Saint Leo University.  “We would be hard pressed to find a Saint Leo student that this gift will not impact.”

While Saint Leo educates thousands of students online and at military bases across the country, the university maintains as its anchor the original residential college campus, located just north of Tampa in east Pasco County. Saint Leo administrators commonly refer to this educational approach as “bricks and clicks.” The university conducts a dedicated commencement for its Center for Online Learning graduates annually, with the 2010 ceremony to be held at 9 a.m., Saturday, May 1. 

Tapia said he was drawn to Saint Leo because of the main campus, along with the online offerings.

“Saint Leo was a university that I could embrace,” he said.  The main campus sits on a lake and encompasses 185 acres. The beautiful Spanish Mission-style buildings complement the pastoral setting.
By contrast, Don Tapia grew up in a rough neighborhood in Detroit and eventually joined the Air Force, citing it was his only way out of the Michigan slums.  While in the Air Force he studied flight control, which later led him to a job as an air traffic controller.
Eventually Tapia’s entrepreneurial spirit would lead him to start his own business, Essco Wholesale Electric Inc., outside Phoenix.  He began by selling supplies to contractors, and eventually built a multi-million dollar wholesale company – the largest Hispanic owned company in the state of Arizona, according to the Hispanic Business 500 list for 2008.  Tapia truly is a rags-to-riches American success story.

Although Tapia was a successful businessman, he had only a high school degree.  But he always preached the value of an education to his grandchildren.

“At the time I graduated high school, said Tapia, “a high school degree gave you an entrance into the job market.  Not today.  I always told my grandchildren in today’s world a bachelor’s degree is what is necessary to get a job.”

For 38 months, Tapia would come to work early and then leave at 3 p.m. to work on his Saint Leo online studies. 

“It was a mission, it was psychological, it was something I wanted to accomplish for myself and my family.  They would be able to look at me and say, ‘If Granddad can do it at 65, I can do it.’  They’d have no excuses.”

It took him three-and-a-half years to earn a bachelor’s degree.  During that time neither his family nor friends knew that he was taking classes online.  In fact, just prior to boarding a plane for commencement at Saint Leo in 2005, Tapia mailed his family letters announcing his achievement.

“Online learning is a lot of writing and research, much more so than in a standard classroom,” said Tapia.  “Online degrees at Saint Leo are more rigid in time and substance, and when I finished I truly felt that I had put forth the work to earn the degree.”

He would go on to earn his Master of Business Administration degree in 2007 through the online option from Saint Leo’s School of Business. Tapia even became an honorary member of the TKE fraternity at the university.  When he’s on campus Tapia is known for taking the brothers of TKE out for a nice dinner at one of Tampa’s finest steakhouses.