Saint Leo Awards More Than 1,100 Degrees

April 29, 2017

More than 1,100 new degree recipients celebrated their success on Friday, April 29, and Saturday, April 30, at University Campus during Saint Leo’s commencement ceremonies.

Saint Leo WorldWide seniors kicked off the weekend with a Friday evening ceremony. About 325 students, mainly adult learners who studied online and on ground at the Adult Education Center at University Campus and Pasco-Hernando State College locations, as well as at University Campus, were awarded bachelor’s degrees.

Alumnus George Turner ’08, who retired as the chief of the Atlanta Police Department in 2016, addressed the graduates of 2017 at Friday’s ceremony. He served on the city police force for 35 years, and during his tenure as chief, the force grew to more than 2,000 sworn officers. On May 1, he will become the vice president of safety and security for the Atlanta Hawks basketball team and Philips Arena.

Photo of George Turner addressing Class of 2017

“It doesn’t matter where you start,” Turner told the graduates, saying he first lived in the housing projects of Atlanta. “It matters that you keep on going.”

Turner encouraged the Class of 2017 to keep going despite failures. He dropped out of Clark Atlanta with only 16 credits needed to graduate. And he failed the sergeant’s exam the first time he took it.

“Dreams and goals mean nothing without being willing to work and sacrifice,” to make those dreams a reality. “For me, it took 30 years to graduate,” Turner said. “And I am so grateful to Saint Leo for giving me the opportunity to complete my education.”

U.S. Army veteran and mother of three Mercy Figueroa of Spring Hill, FL, gave the farewell address for Saint Leo WorldWide. Figueroa graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Science degree in criminal justice: criminalistics. A native of Havana, Cuba, Figueroa came to the United States at the age of 2. Her father was a political prisoner in Cuba, and the family escaped, first to Spain, and then to New York. Her husband, Luis Figueroa, also graduated Friday night, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration: technology management. Their oldest son, Isaac, and Mercy Figueroa’s sister, Heavenly Aguilar, also are Saint Leo students.

“To the families in the audience, I would like to say thank you for your patience and support,” she said. “I know your student had to miss some family time to devote to studies. Your patience is rewarded today as you get to witness the culmination of your student’s hard work. You played an instrumental role in their success. I want to give special thanks to my husband who is

graduating with me today; ours is a love story 25 years in the making.”

She saluted her fellow veterans, active duty military, and law enforcement personnel. “Some of you are battling injuries sustained as a result of your service, some of you are veterans of war and are coping with reintegrating into the civilian world as you get ready for the next chapter in your life,” Figueroa said. “I was honored to serve with you, and I am honored to graduate with you today. As veterans, I cannot imagine a better school to call our alma mater.”

Photo of Mercy Figueroa

More than 435 students received their master’s degrees across a variety of disciplines during a Saturday morning ceremony in the Marion Bowman Activities Center.

Saint Leo also conferred its first Doctorate of Business Administration degrees with Billie Jarrell and Leslie Sukup receiving their DBAs. Patrick Plummer, who also earned his DBA, could not attend the ceremony.

Addressing the master’s program students was Yvette Segura, vice president and general manager of the Southeast Regional Office of USAA, an insurance and financial services company serving military members and their families. Segura provides leadership to the 2,600 USAA employees in Tampa and is the senior USAA officer in Florida.

Photo of Yvette Segura

Segura offered three lessons she learned not only in her working relationships, but also her personal life. “First, communicate with the platinum rule,” she said. “And that is being gracious and being kind.”

Even when giving constructive criticism and being firm, one must keep a person’s dignity intact, she said. “And have a sense of humor,” Segura said. “Don’t take yourself so seriously. Let people know you are human.” 

Her second piece of advice is to stay relevant, and not only in terms of technology, but also in terms of leadership literacy. Her last instruction to the Class of 2017: “Be very aware of the leadership shadow you cast,” Segura said.

Student speaker for the graduate commencement was Benita Hayes, of Dade City, FL. After a 29-year career as a registered respiratory therapist, Hayes decided to return to school in 2014 to pursue a master’s degree in social work. She also is a 16-year breast cancer survivor and an avid supporter of bringing breast health awareness to the community.

“Each of us had factors that brought us to this present moment,” Hayes said to her fellow graduates. “For me it was my faith in God, determination and drive at the most vulnerable time in my life. You see, seven months prior to enrolling in Saint Leo, I became a military widow and a single parent to my son who by the way, graduated from Saint Leo yesterday. This along with the decision to return to school and leaving a 29-year lucrative career at the age of 50 was serious. I was driven by the need to succeed. I prayed for myself as well as my cohort. I had finally found my purpose. I knew that this is where I was supposed to be.”

Photo of Benita Hayes

On Saturday afternoon, more than 350 traditional undergraduates who studied at University Campus received their degrees. In addition, two associate degrees were awarded posthumously to the families of Alexis Carrera and Nicholas Jonah Cusson-Ducharm. Both passed away in 2016.

Addressing the students was alumnus and Saint Leo University Board of Trustees Chairman Dennis M. Mullen. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Saint Leo College in 1976. An active member of the alumni, he has served as a trustee over the course of 20 years, leading the board as chair from 2007 to 2009 and from 2015 to 2017.

He is the president and founder of The Mullen Group, LLC. He served as the chairman, president, and CEO of Birds Eye Foods for 10 years, during which time the company became the nation’s largest processor of frozen vegetables.

Based on his own life lessons, Mullen advised the students using the acronym LEAP.

“L: Love the ones around you.

E: Enjoy the profession you choose.

A: Audacity—Have the audacity to challenge and bust paradigms.

P: Prayer—It has been an important part of my life.”

Mullen was honored with the Marion Bowman Distinguished Service Medal for his dedication to the university and also was awarded the degree Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa.

Alex Swonger of Zephyrhills, FL, who was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army later Saturday evening, received the Thomas B. Southard Leadership Award Sabre.

Photo of Ammar MohratSelected by the Class of 2017 as its speaker was Ammar Mohrat, who received his Bachelor of Science degree in computer information systems. Mohrat was born and raised in Homs, Syria, where he was studying computer engineering at Al Ba’ath University when the country’s revolution began in 2011. He was a political and media activist, but was forced to flee Syria in 2011 due to political persecution and threats to his life.

Mohrat is grateful for the opportunity he’s been given by Saint Leo and the United States. He has been a Dean’s List student and member of Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity, while working as a tutor, parking valet, and a computer programmer for the Badcock Corp.

“Saint Leo was my ticket out of a meaningless and purposeless life in the Middle East,” Mohrat said. “This Catholic liberal arts college gave me an incredible opportunity. This is a place where anyone can come from anywhere in the world, and we’re all treated equally no matter where we’re from or what we believe. And for this I will always be grateful.”