Saint Leo's online degree programs – combined with perseverance and sacrifice – enable adult learners to complete college.

When a dream comes true, is the achievement more gratifying the longer you have waited and the harder you have worked to attain it?

Pose that question to any of Saint Leo's Center for Online Learning students who will be graduating later this week, and their answers would be a resounding 'yes.'

Their reasons for placing college on the back burner vary. Some started college when they were younger and shifted gears to raise children, support a family, devote themselves to a job, care for a relative or serve in the military.

"Life intervened," most say. So they placed the needs of others ahead of their own dreams and aspirations.

But only for a time.

For busy working adults, earning a college degree later in life requires remarkable effort and extraordinary commitment.

Here, a few recent graduates share some thoughts on why they made that commitment and what the online degree program journey was like.

Congratulations, Saint Leo University Class of 2015!

Patricia Bernard-FingalElkridge, Md.B.S. Health Care ManagementWorks for Prince George County Public Schools

What led you to college at this time in your life?After getting married in 1982, we started our family right away. We decided that I would stay at home and care for our children, which I did until our youngest entered middle school. At this point, it was time for me to realize my dreams of going to college. After a near-fatal medical incident, I felt it was time to grasp life and complete what I started.

Why did you choose Saint Leo?I chose Saint Leo because of the Christian focus, which is an integral part of my lifestyle.

Why was getting a degree important to you?Education has always been important to our family. My grandfather taught me as a child in Jamaica that being educated is one of the most important achievements in life. Before his death, I promised him I would complete my college education.

What inspired you to persevere?My greatest reason was to demonstrate to my children and grandchildren that neither age nor negative life occurrences should be deterrents to fulfilling their dreams. Instead, they should treat them as learning tools and stepping stones to success.

Who was your support system?I have been blessed to have a great support system of family, friends, co-workers and clients.

Your proudest moment?Being accepted to an internship at Novant Health Charlotte Orthopedic Hospital in Charlotte. I moved to North Carolina for eight weeks. At the end of my internship, the hospital director asked me to come back to direct the team-building retreat that I had organized for the hospital's leadership team.

Your most difficult challenge?Taking care of my business long distance and foregoing many family activities to stay focused.

Favorite aspect of your degree program?The freedom to work at my own pace, at any time of the day or night, was priceless.

What are your career plans?I plan to re-enter the entrepreneurial arena with my children, acquiring assisted living homes, while pursuing a master's in public health.

What advice do you have for other adults considering an online program?Never be afraid to try new things. For example, I had thought that face-to-face-learning was best for me and that I could never be successful as an online-student.

Also, do not allow age, health, finances, naysayers or any excuse to dissuade you from achieving your dream to earn a degree. It has taken me approximately 34 years, and many false starts, to earn this degree. During my time at Saint Leo, I underwent three surgeries and several hospitalizations, but I stayed focused. That same focus also enabled me to take stock of my poor health. I changed my lifestyle and lost more than 100 pounds. My college experience not only led to success in my educational goals, but today I am a much healthier and happier person.

Melinda Griffin BerrymanSanford, N.C.B.A. Criminal Justice - CriminalisticsFull-time student

What led you to college at this time in your life?I put my education on the back burner so that I could work and provide for my three boys as a single mother. I promised myself that once they were grown that I would finally invest in myself. With only my 16-year-old still at home, I decided it was time to pursue something that I had put off for 23 years.

Why did you choose Saint Leo?I chose Saint Leo because of the university's wonderful reputation and because Saint Leo offered the course of study I had been looking for. The biggest reason, however, was the university's core values. I utilize Saint Leo's core values in my life every day and cherish this university for incorporating them into every aspect of its teachings.

Why was getting a degree important to you?I want to set an example for my children and grandchildren. I am the first person in my family to graduate with a high school diploma, and the only one in my family thus far to earn a degree, and I want to break this ugly cycle.

What inspired you to persevere?My faith. I was raised by my grandparents who always said that "the question is never what do you want, but how badly do you want it?" I wanted a higher education badly.

Who was your support system?I first give honor to God for the strength and endurance to press on. I am blessed to have the love and support of family and friends. They would listen as I vented about the late nights studying and would remind me that I could do this.

Your proudest moment?When I found out that I had consecutively made the Dean's List.

Your most difficult challenge?The amount of time that I had to put into my studies. Finding the balance that would work for me was a little tedious my first term, but I quickly learned how to balance home and school.

Favorite aspect of your degree program?How challenging the program was. Also, the faculty was totally amazing. I cannot thank my instructors enough for the countless times they encouraged me. I felt like Saint Leo was not just a university but a family.

What are your career plans?I have a background in corrections, and I have worked at the local district attorney's office. So I have always enjoyed various aspects of law. I intend to pursue a master's degree.

What advice do you have for other adults considering an online program?Believe in yourself. Set realistic goals and welcome the challenge. Remain strong in your faith and know that all things are possible for those who believe. Trust that you will have all of the help that you need, but you must be willing to do your part in attaining your educational goals.

Dew BlackwellB.A. PsychologyInman, S.C.

What led you to college at this time in your life?I attended Saint Leo's satellite campus in Ocala Fla. back in the late 90's in a dual program with the local community college but had to leave the school and move back to be close to family. Recently, I lost my father and many other immediate family members and decided it was time to finish my degree, for one, to honor my father. I know he will be in attendance at graduation in spirit and beaming with proudness for what I have accomplished. It is with great honor and respect for him that I will accept my degree.

Why did you choose Saint Leo?I liked the flexibility of the online learning environment as well as the Christian atmosphere present at the university and among its students.

Why was getting a degree important to you?It is important for me to get this degree so I can continue to help others around me live productively and happily.

What inspired you to persevere?Wanting to honor my father inspired me to persevere and the fact I could one day help others be all they can and want to be.

Who was your support system?I had great support from my sister and mother who were always encouraging me to keep learning and growing both academically and personally.

Your proudest moment?My proudest moment as a student was when I became president of the Online Psychology Association and felt I had a purpose.

Your most difficult challenge?Learning how to manage my time efficiently to balance school, personal and social life.

What are your career plans?I plan to use my degree to help others in similar situations in life who struggle with adversities and obstacles. I will be starting my graduate program in May working toward my PhD in health psychology.

What advice do you have for other adults considering an online program?Trust and believe in yourself and keep on keeping on and your goals will become reality.

Lee Ann GrammerPalm Harbor, Fla.B.A. AccountingAP manager/staff accountant for a mechanical contracting company

What led you to college at this point in your life?I had attended college twice before and started to go back again when I was 40. That winter I broke my ankle and then found out I was pregnant with twins. Life got in the way again! I was waiting for the right time, and about three years ago decided this was it.

Why did you choose Saint Leo?I know two other people who graduated from Saint Leo and they had nothing but great things to say about the university. Also, the fact that Saint Leo is here in Florida and that it is a Catholic university.

Why was getting a degree important to you?The degree will only add value to my experience. For any upper-level accounting position the least that you need is an undergraduate degree.

What inspired you to persevere?My children. I am a single mom and I will be in the workforce for a very long time. I need to have my skill set in place so that I can compete and be on top of my craft for many years to come.

Who was your support system?I received so much support mainly from my parents. They helped me when I needed someone to take the girls so I could study or have the quiet time to take an exam. I could not ask for a more loving and supportive family.

Your proudest moment?There were a couple and it was when I would get that small manila envelope in the mail with my Dean's List certificate.

Your most difficult challenge?Time is always a challenge for me and having the energy to stay awake late at night to study. I had to give up all of my "me" time. But that's why I did not finish college when I was younger: I was not willing to give up my personal time.

Favorite aspect of your degree program?My favorite part of the program was how the classes were layered to build upon concepts. Plus, many of the things that I learned in classes I was able to apply to my job.

What are your career plans?One day I wish to start my own business. I am not done with learning either. I will be back at Saint Leo in January 2016 (I need a little vacation) to start working on my graduate degree in accounting. During the fall, I will be studying to take the CMA exam.

What advice do you have for other adults considering an online program?Do it now! The longer you wait the harder it will be because life gets in the way! I never knew how much I loved learning until I made my way to Saint Leo University.

Jashanda LemonsB.A. Criminal Justice - Homeland SecurityTampa, Fla.Middle school AVID tutor

What led you to college at this time your life?This is the route I must to take in order to reach the goal that I have set and enter the profession I have chosen.

Why did you choose Saint Leo?The course structure fit my lifestyle and work schedule. This allowed me to work and take full-time classes at the same time.

Why was getting a degree important to you?It will allow me to increase my earning potential and become more marketable to a much greater range of lucrative career opportunities.

What inspired you to persevere?The support of family and friends encouraging me, pushing me forward to help build my confidence, because excelling in school was not my forte. Also, obtaining a profession where I can live a better lifestyle.

Who was your support system?My parents and brother have supported me throughout my entire college career. My father helped with tuition, my brother with books and a laptop, and my mother always had words of encouragement and advice when I grew weary.

Your proudest moment?Making the Dean's List.

What was your most difficult challenge?My most difficult challenge has been this spring semester. The work load and the course have been very challenging.

Favorite aspect of your degree program?I have enjoyed becoming more educated about terrorism and homeland security in light of everything that is going on in the world today.

What are your career plans?I plan to work for the government, maybe in Department of Homeland Security, Federal Bureau of Investigation, or the National Security Agency.

What advice do you have for other adults considering an online program?I would tell them their dreams can always be fulfilled even when attending a college campus isn't an option for them. Obtaining a degree online is another avenue to reach their goals and realize their dreams.

My experience at Saint Leo has helped me view life from a different perspective. It has drastically boosted my self-confidence and has helped me realize my potential.

Congratulations to all Center for Online Learning students who are graduating this spring!

Image credits: Phongphao Arkatsupha on Shutterstock and courtesy Saint Leo students