Despite Eye Cancer, Criminal Justice Graduate Student Still Flies High
Meet Stephen “Kyle” Bowman, a criminal justice graduate degree student and 2005 alumnus who takes to the skies for the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office.
Imagine being told you only have three months to live. Stephen “Kyle” Bowman heard these words from an eye specialist upon learning of having eye cancer. Fortunately, the subsequent treatment has allowed the Saint Leo criminal justice graduate student to continue his work as a helicopter pilot for the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office.
The 46-year-old native of Waycross, GA now lives with his family in New Port Richey, FL. He and his wife, Christine, have an 18-year-old daughter, Taylor, and a 12-year-old daughter, Riley.
For four years, Bowman served in the U.S. Navy. During his Naval service, he worked on the USS Independence and was stationed in Yokosuka, Japan.
“I did launch and recovery of aircraft,” he explains.
It was someone he was renting from at the time who told him about Saint Leo University.
“Being a Navy veteran, I decided to contact the university,” he says. “I found out that the closest location to me at the time was the MacDill Education Office on base.”
He completed his undergraduate studies at Saint Leo in 2005, earning a BA in business administration degree with a focus on management.
“It was a great experience,” he recalls. “It was all night classes for me since I had a full-time position with SunTrust Bank.”
He initially worked as a banker and was later promoted to a portfolio manager for the bank’s business clients. Within a few years, he knew he needed a career change.
“I got a little tired of sitting behind a desk. I decided that I wanted to follow in my dad’s footsteps. He had worked as a deputy and helicopter pilot for the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office.”
Bowman completed the law enforcement academy program at St. Petersburg College. He was hired by the St. Petersburg Police Department in 2006 and worked as a patrol officer on the street crimes unit. Five years later, he learned of an opportunity with the Pasco Sheriff’s Office.
“I got wind that they might be expanding their aviation division. I had already earned my pilot’s license a few years before this. After spending some time working the streets, I introduced myself to the chief pilot and later became a temporary tactical flight officer.”
For several years, his full-time role has involved using the helicopter for criminal investigations and other purposes in assisting the agency.
“This involves working air-to-ground emergency systems. I coordinate with our K-9 officers to search for criminals and missing children and assist with other cases from the air.”
He later would earn his flight instructor rating, enabling him to teach others how to fly both helicopters and planes.
He has enjoyed talking with kids about flying. He has landed the helicopter at Cypress Elementary and a few other schools around Pasco County for the Great American Teach-In.
“Seeing the kids’ faces light up when they walk up to the helicopter and get to sit inside it is amazing. To me, if you can reach out to just one kid and make a positive difference in how they think, it’s a feel-good moment for me.”
In addition to his work with the sheriff’s office, he privately flies clients around the state.
In October of 2020, Bowman noticed a slight change to his vision.
“I thought it was just part of getting older and needing to use some cheaters,” he says.
But it was far more serious than that. After going through a battery of tests at Bascom Palmer Eye Institute at the University of Miami, he ultimately received a diagnosis of eye melanoma.
“One of the doctors originally told me I might have three months to live,” he says.
The good news was that the cancer was localized to his left eye and was not spreading. He had successful surgery at Bascom Palmer.
“They actually removed my retina and then put it back in the eye. It could take up to two years for the retina to fully heal.”
Only 3,500 people in the United States are diagnosed with this specific type of eye cancer each year. Roughly 80% of those wind up losing the affected eye, he says. Knowing he is extremely lucky, he finds it rewarding to share his story with others who end up in the same boat to demonstrate that there is a chance of recovery.
“They have had me tell my story to other eye cancer patients. If I can touch one other person’s life with how I’ve overcome this, I want to do that.”
After many trips to South Florida for further monitoring of the cancer, he returned to work in May of 2021 and got back into the helicopter by October. He still has slight blindness in the peripheral vision of his left eye.
“I’ve learned to adapt to depth perception issues, so I take a different approach to flying. Because we have to land our helicopters on a dolly, I have had to retrain myself on judging distances to ensure a safe landing each time.”
In the midst of his health scare, his outlook changed.
“As all of this played out, I realized that I wanted to go get my master’s degree,” he says. “I knew that my agency had a sponsorship program to cover a good amount of tuition for its employees.”
While on medical leave, he was doing some research and discovered the master’s in criminal justice program at Saint Leo University.
“I needed a fallback plan which is why I wanted to pursue a graduate degree. Now I realize my career might hinge on this program.”
He began the MS in criminal justice with a specialization in critical incident management in the summer of 2021.
One of his professors in the criminal justice graduate degree program, Dr. Peter Wubbenhorst, and an ethics course Bowman took with him significantly changed his approach to his education.
“In the past, I had always struggled with ethics,” Bowman says. “I finally passed an ethics class with an ‘A.’ We just clicked and have talked a lot. He helped guide me to better study and research habits in this master’s program. I’ve learned so much about how to effectively write papers, do better research, and to dig deeper than only scratching the surface.”
In addition to Wubbenhorst, each of his instructors has been extremely supportive.
“The professors have all worked with me. Even though we’re online and at a distance, they are very easy to get ahold of when I have a question.”
While his undergraduate degree program was held in person, he believes the online nature of the graduate program couldn’t be better for him at this point in his life.
“The online format is perfect for me. I don’t have time to go to a classroom environment because I’m so busy covering shifts and flying clients. It’s nice to be able to flip open my laptop at an airport to knock out a paper or study for an upcoming test. It’s extremely valuable to do this program online.”
All six of the Saint Leo University core values are meaningful to him as well.
“They all take place and are there for a reason,” he says. As students, we incorporate all of them into the papers we write. Also, the instructors really live by these core values and expect us as students to do the same.”
Bowman was inducted into the Iota chapter of the Omega Nu Lambda National Honor Society. However, since he admittedly struggled at times as an undergrad, he actually questioned the invitation.
“After I got an email from this honor society, I called my advisor to make sure this was not a mistake because I had never come close to being part of something like this before. They laughed and said it was. It’s definitely an honor.”
And what suggestions does he have for those considering a graduate degree program?
“Time management is everything. I try to work ahead in my classes and get a jump on my assignments early.”
Additionally, conducting proper research is critical, he says.
“There are some topics you will be more passionate about covering than others. No matter what, always do ample research on a subject whether or not it is in your wheelhouse.”
His big goal right now involves academics.
“I was always a ‘C’ student before,” he says. “In this master’s program, I have gotten straight A’s. My short-term goal is to finish this master’s program with all A’s. I would be extremely proud of myself to be able to do this. My daughters and I compare our grades all the time to see who has more A’s each semester.”
He is on track to graduate this December. As far as his criminal justice career goes, he knows he will be in a much better position upon completing his graduate studies from Saint Leo.
“My agency has been so supportive. If I have to step back from flying at some point, I am pretty confident I could make a lateral move to find another role within the agency. Having a master’s degree sets you above everyone else and puts you in an advantageous position.”
After completing his criminal justice graduate degree, he aspires to teach as an adjunct professor for Saint Leo. His long-term career aspiration is to earn the title of chief pilot with the Pasco Sheriff’s Office.
When Bowman does have free time, he tries to spend most of it with his family.
“I have learned that family time is so important,” he confides. “At one point, I was working seven days a week. I realized I was missing out on my daughters’ gymnastics meets and other activities. Once you hear ‘cancer,’ everything stops and you reevaluate your life. You really start to appreciate the little things.”
Photo credit: The photograph included in this blog article was provided by Stephen “Kyle” Bowman and is used with permission.