At just 24, KJ Ryan has had the chance to work in two major entertainment hubs of the world. As a communication major at Saint Leo University on the verge of finishing off his bachelor’s degree this month, he has his sights set on a public relations career under the bright lights of Las Vegas.

Ryan, who has a younger brother, originally hails from Long Island, NY. He is a 2016 alumnus of Centereach High School. He now resides in Tampa, FL.

Flocking South to Attend Saint Leo University

Ryan has had two academic stints with Saint Leo University. He initially came to the university right out of high school in the fall of 2016 as a psychology major.

“My admissions counselor, Nick Macchio [now the assistant vice president of enrollment services and operations], was a huge influence in bringing me to Saint Leo,” Ryan says. “My mom and I enjoyed speaking with him. He made the whole process feel really comfortable for us.”

In addition, he liked how the school has small class sizes and a tightknit community.

While in his sophomore year, he was accepted into the Disney College Program for a paid internship. He later became a full-time employee and spent about three years there before he was laid off in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. He briefly continued some of his coursework at Valencia College while living in Orlando.

“I had a big decision to make,” he says. “In my heart, I knew I wanted to go back to Saint Leo where I would feel safe and comfortable.”

He returned in the spring of 2021 as a communication major in the BA in communication program.

Outstanding Professors in the Communication Major

Several of his Saint Leo faculty members have made quite the impression on him during his time as an undergraduate student, especially as a communication major. One example is Prof. Emma Brown.

“She has been such a huge help regarding life skills and things I can use outside the classroom.”

Dr. Kenneth Embry has also been memorable.

“I had him as a professor before I left, so I joke that I’m his longest-tenured student at Saint Leo,” he says with a laugh. “He makes every class period enjoyable and pushes students to their very best. I’m definitely going to miss him when I graduate.”

Dr. Diane Monahan has played a key role in his success as well.

“She has been a great support,” he says. “She was my internship advisor. She checked in on me a lot during the internship and has always been very encouraging.”

Making the Most of His University Campus Experience

During his first stint as a Saint Leo student, he conveniently lived on campus.

“It was great to be able to live among my classmates and be involved on campus,” he says. “No matter whether you’re a commuter student or live on campus, it’s important to put yourself out there and get involved. You want to get the full Saint Leo experience because it can lead to so many things.”

More recently, he got involved in the Campus Activities Board (CAB).

He has also served as a Student Ambassador to help prospective students learn about the many benefits of attending Saint Leo University.

“I got to work with Nicole Lesko [now the manager of University Campus enrollment communication], one of my lifelong mentors. She encouraged me to be on the executive board of Student Ambassadors. She has been such a great resource, and we still keep in touch.”

Ryan has assisted with events both on and off campus. He helped put on an egg hunt and trivia event for Halloween, a “Thankful for Leo” card-writing campaign for Thanksgiving in which students wrote thank-you notes to fellow Saint Leo community members, a winter wonderland with a human snow globe, and a gingerbread decorating contest.

Aside from his volunteer roles, he is currently a student worker in Student Affairs.

What Sets Saint Leo Apart

In his eyes, community is his top Saint Leo core value and the biggest differentiator for the university. There is also a close second on his list.

“Personal development is my other favorite,” he says. “I’ve really developed both personally and professionally while here. It has been great to find out what I want to do in my career. Living through the pandemic has shown me what I can overcome as well.”

The core values embody everything Saint Leo has to offer, he adds.

“At Saint Leo University, you’re not just a statistic. The professors aren’t just there for a paycheck, either. They really do care about their students, and they want to see them succeed. If you take advantage of opportunities and put everything into your college career, Saint Leo will truly help you succeed.”

Early Exposure to the Hospitality Industry

At Disney, he worked in the merchandise, attraction, and concierge departments.

“The most fun I had was working the Jungle Cruise as a skipper on a riverboat at Magic Kingdom,” he recalls. “Getting to stand in front of an audience to tell jokes and puns was so cool. People love the sarcasm of a skipper. I can say I experienced a lot of professional development while working there.”

A One-of-a-Kind Internship in Las Vegas

A photo of KJ Ryan, a Saint Leo University communication major, standing in a canyon during the summer of 2022 when he completed his public relations internship in Las Vegas

This past summer, Ryan landed a paid internship based out of Las Vegas. He discovered the paid opportunity through TikTok.

“It was advertised as a job to work and live in a casino,” he says. “I didn’t know anyone there, and I was one of 15 strangers. The good thing is that we all instantly clicked with each other.”

From May through August, he worked for Station Casinos. The company operates six properties in the area. The interns lived at Red Rock Casino, Resort, and Spa. His duties included pitching reporters with story ideas, writing press releases, and attending events.

“I was paired with the vice president of public relations and digital strategy,” he says. “We had a lot of meetings in which we talked about PR strategies and leadership. He wanted to take the time to get to know us. He really opened my eyes to the field and the fact that I made the right decision by pursuing this internship opportunity.”

In addition to the work, he got to explore some fun in the area through hiking, visiting museums, and bowling. He and his fellow interns even got to volunteer with a local food bank to help prepare lunches for underprivileged children to bring home on the weekend.

“Every day was different. You never really knew what you were going to walk into, and that makes it exciting for me.”

He highly recommends the idea of an internship for anyone seeking practical experience and building their professional network.

“My boss gave me so many opportunities,” he says. “Networking can help you get your foot in the door. You can develop a portfolio to showcase and lots to talk about in future job interviews.”

His goal is to officially move out to Las Vegas to handle public relations in the hospitality or gaming industries.

Based on his own experience, he has some prudent advice for students of all ages.

“Life puts us on a path, and sometimes we have to make hard decisions,” he says. “If you can find your “why,” in your career, go for it.”

Photo credit: The photographs included in this blog article were provided by KJ Ryan and are used with permission.