For two decades, Nena Fennell proudly served her country. Now, Saint Leo University is helping to serve her higher education needs so she can pursue a post-military career.

The 39-year-old is a native of Mangum, Okla. She now resides in Riverview, Fla. with her wife, Lakesha. She's also the proud mother of three – 23-year-old Jahmel, 14-year-old Aaliyah and 12-year-old Anthony.

A graduate of Mangum High School in Oklahoma, the motivated mom began her adult life in a military uniform.

An Early Air Force Enlistment

Fennell was the first in her family to join the military. On March 11, 1998, she officially became a member of the U.S. Air Force right out of high school. She says she chose the Air Force because of the branch's test score requirements and camaraderie she knew about, but there was also a special person who had a little influence on this big decision.

"My mother died when I was young," she confides. "My mentor, Danette Dallas, was in the Air Force. I had grown up with her kids, so she had a big impact on me."

Fennell served at several bases stateside, including Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene, Texas, Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City, Patrick Air Force Base on Florida's east coast, Grand Forks Air Force Base near Grand Forks, N.D. and MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. She also served several deployments in Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Bahrain and Iraq.

The highest rank she attained was becoming a master sergeant E7. During her first seven years of service, she worked in logistics. Her final 13 years were spent in human resources as someone who dealt with equal opportunity matters. Looking back on her service, she says she had quite a variety of experiences, especially during her deployments.

"Being in Iraq, we constantly had to take shelter and watch our backs. There were numerous mortar attacks around us, and it was overwhelming at times. But the brotherhood and sisterhood of everyone got us through it all. Then when I went to Bahrain, we got to stay in five-star hotels."

She walked away with the three main core values of the Air Force.

"In the Air Force, we say integrity first, service before self and excellence in all we do," she says.

She explains why joining the military can be such a positive decision for countless young people.

"There are so many benefits to being in the military as far as being in an organization that epitomizes excellence. It can really bring structure to a young person's life and helps people grow up and mature into responsible adults."

Her Journey to Saint Leo's Tampa Education Center

Fennell recalls how she initially learned about Saint Leo as a potential option for higher education – something she knew she'd need to pursue sooner than later.

"I actually discovered Saint Leo through its MacDill AFB Education Office. It was one of three choices for me. After reading their core values, it seemed like they aligned really closely with what the military had taught me. It fit me to a 'T.'"

In the fall of 2018, she began her bachelor's in criminal justice.

"I wanted a degree that would help me land a position with a police force."

Her experience attending the Tampa Education Center has been wonderful, she says.

"The atmosphere is very relaxed yet professional," she explains. "When I first started, I was very impressed that the receptionists and advisors all knew my name. It is a very personal dynamic, and it feels like a family there."

She thoroughly enjoyed a course she took on police administration.

"In that class, Professor Charles Boswell had a wealth of knowledge of the subject and used current events in his teaching style. He was very relatable."

Her future goal is to work as a detective in the forensic science realm. Thanks to her proven work ethic in the military and her goal of a bachelor's degree in criminal justice, she is well on her way to a rewarding career.

Photo credit: The photograph included in this blog article was provided by Nena Fennell and is used with permission.