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 | Mary McCoy

Saint Leo University Graduates Have Much to Celebrate

More than 1,300 students celebrated graduating from Saint Leo University during commencement ceremonies on May 11 at the Florida State Fairgrounds.

For some of the graduates, it was a day of firsts:

  • Many of the new alumni are “first-gen” — the first of their family to graduate from college;

  • It was their first time to wear a graduation cap and gown and jubilantly cross a stage since their high school graduations were cancelled at the height of the COVID 19 pandemic;

  • Devon Wilson of Riverview, FL, became the “first of the first,” as the inaugural Bachelor of Arts in Veteran Studies Degree graduate in the nation’s first veteran studies bachelor’s program.

  • Saint Leo welcomed the first graduates from its World Campus program in which students live and study online in Latin American countries in their native language.

For University Campus’ valedictorian, Isabella Riano of Naples, FL, her favorite memory of her time at Saint Leo recalls one of her “firsts.” “My favorite moment was performing my first solo in 2021,” said the member of the Saint Leo Singers. “It helped me get out of my comfort zone and overcome my fear of presenting in public.”

Riano, who grew up in Colombia, was an Honors Program student and graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in psychology: clinical/counseling. A mental health advocate, her long-term goal is to become a licensed clinical psychologist and help children.

“It’s a real honor to be the first for the university,” Wilson said of being the first veteran studies graduate. “It’s a great program to understand things that a veteran encounters and the responsibility of that as a leader. Wilson, a 20-year Navy veteran, said that as an adult learner he at first felt a little overwhelmed at times, but received support along the way. “The challenges were getting back to being a student alongside my younger classmates, and the long hours of study, and preparing for the next class,” he said. “But the various programs and resources Saint Leo offered — including the CAVE [Center for Academic Vision & Excellence] library, and study groups and the dedication of the staff and faculty who are willing to help — is the best.” 

Morning Ceremony

Graduating during the morning ceremony were 642 students including University Campus and education center undergraduate students receiving their bachelor’s and associate degrees; master’s degree graduates in accounting, computer science, creative writing, cybersecurity, and social work and Doctor of Business Administration graduates.

Giving the morning commencement address was Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister, who has served the agency for more 32 years. “I’m not just Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister; I’m also a proud double graduate of Saint Leo University,” said Chronister, who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in criminal justice from the university.

Like many of the graduates, his path to becoming sheriff was not straightforward. Raised by a single mom, he attended two years of college, but the money ran out, he said. A friend in Tampa suggested he move to the area so he traded the snow tires for sunshine. He worked for a plumber, digging ditches, and then in the evening loading trucks for UPS loading. The next step for Chronister was joining the sheriff’s office. Higher education was key to him, and he completed his degrees while working thanks to the flexibility of the classes offered by Saint Leo, he said.

“As you prepare to embark on the next phase of your journey, I encourage you to embrace the unknown with courage and curiosity,” Chronister advised.

Campus, Education Center Outstanding Students

In addition to Riano as the valedictorian for University Campus, Cole Washko, of Bradenton, FL, was honored as the salutatorian. The Air Force veteran graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English: professional writing. During his senior year, Washko was hired full time as a public information officer (PIO) for Sarasota County, FL.

Honored as the valedictorian for Saint Leo’s education centers was Sylvia Elaine Chaney, of Temple Terrace/Tampa, FL. She graduated summa cum laude with Bachelor of Social Work degree. She will pursue a Master of Social Work degree at Florida State University.

Genair Tanoa Kirnes, of Tampa, FL, was honored as the salutatorian, and graduated summa cum laude with Bachelor of Social Work degree. She will attend the University of Central Florida to pursue a Master of Social Work degree.

Afternoon Ceremony

Saint Leo’s afternoon commencement exercises saw 700 students cross the stage. Participating were Center for Online Learning undergraduate students who earned their bachelor’s and associate degrees; World Camus students who study in their native language in Latin American countries; doctoral students who received their doctorates in criminal justice and education; education specialist students; and master’s degree students in business administration, education, criminal justice, emergency and disaster management, human services, instructional design, psychology, and theology.

Honored as the top students for the Center for Online Learning were valedictorian, Alexandra Georgina Calabro, of Davenport, FL, who graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in elementary education, and salutatorian Katie Teresa Vaughn, of St. Augustine, FL, who graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in elementary education.

Giving the afternoon commencement address was State Representative Fentrice D. Driskell, House minority leader, who represents the 67th House District. She first was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in November 2018. In 2022, Driskell’s peers unanimously elected her as leader of the Democratic Caucus, making her the first Black woman to lead either caucus in the Florida House.

“I hope you’ll indulge me — this is my first commencement address,” Driskell said as she took a selfie photo of her and the afternoon ceremony graduates. Her advice to the students: “BYOB,” she said. “Get your mind out of the gutter; it’s not that kind of BYOB. Be Your Own Best.”

She told the graduates not to compare themselves to others. “You have to write your own story,” Driskell said.

“You were the heroes of your own story,” she added, saying that the graduates balanced classes and work, military service, and more. “Give yourself and those around you grace. Learn to accept that setbacks are part of the journey. Each step forward is a testament to your grace and resilience.”

Dr. Edward Dadez, university president, challenged the newly graduated to do more and be more.

“Every graduate of the Class of 2024 is expected to follow the lead of over 104,000 Saint Leo alumni worldwide who preceded you by not only doing well, but also by doing good, as well as remaining faithful to the enduring values you learned here,” he said, listing the university’s core values of personal development, respect, integrity, community, excellence, and responsible stewardship.

“Use your talents, knowledge, experience, and our core values to serve your God, your families, your clients, your employers, your communities, our nation, and our world,” Dadez advised the graduates.     

Happy graduates of Saint Leo University turn the tassels on their mortarboards marking them as alumni.
Morning commencement speaker Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister encourages the graduates to “embrace the unknown with courage and curiosity.”
A jubilant Yvenie Desrosiers crosses the stage as she graduates cum laude with a Bachelor of Social Work from Saint Leo University.