With Double Major, Saint Leo Alum Pursues Ph.D. to Teach College Math
Meet Phillip Waitkevich, a double major alumnus of Saint Leo University who is now working toward a Ph.D. in math with the goal of teaching college math.
Phillip Waitkevich loves math and teaching. The 23-year-old earned two undergraduate degrees as a double major at Saint Leo University. He has now gone on to pursue a doctoral program in hopes of teaching mathematics at the college level someday.
A native of Spring Hill, FL where he currently resides, Waitkevich is one of four siblings. He has several family members who have also graduated from Saint Leo. His older brother, Kevin, attained a BS in biology degree in 2020. His sister, Pam, is a senior earning a double major in psychology and theatre. Plus, His uncle, Mark Waitkevich, earned a graduate degree from the university.
In 2017, he graduated from Hudson High School and brought along several college credits from his Advanced Placement (AP) courses. And what was it about Saint Leo University that persuaded him to enroll?
“My brother was already there, and everyone was very friendly,” Waitkevich says. “I also liked the picturesque campus and small class sizes. Ultimately, the financial aid I got from Saint Leo was the best among the schools where I applied.”
Launching his college career in the fall of 2017, he opted to double major in the BA in math and BS in computer science degree programs. He shares why these disciplines intrigued him.
“In high school, I took a programming course and was kind of hooked,” he explains. “I had heard a lot of computer scientists are also great mathematicians. Knowing different types of math has really helped me with programming.”
Thanks to his academic excellence in high school, he was selected to be in the first cohort of the Emerging Mathematics and Computer Science (EMACS) scholars program at Saint Leo. The program is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation and aims to encourage more college students to pursue STEM-related careers. Through this experience, he volunteered with University Ministry, Feeding Tampa Bay, and Habitat for Humanity.
He recalls spending lots of time with Drs. Brian Camp, a former associate professor of mathematics, and Monika Kiss, a professor of mathematics and current chair of the math department.
“I essentially lived in their offices,” he recalls. “Whenever I had a question, I would go visit them. Whatever they were doing, they’d would drop it and help me. It was really nice having that individual support.”
He adds that all of his professors were very accessible and approachable.
In terms of specific courses that stood out to him, an abstract algebra class opened his eyes to other types of math. He found a number theory class to be quite practical.
“In the number theory class, we learned about RSA encryption, a type of encryption used in a lot of electronic payment platforms. We also had to find a topic not taught in the class and teach it to the students. If you have to teach something to others, you have to know it well.”
Waitkevich lived on campus during all four years at Saint Leo. He says convenience and community were the big perks of being in the heart of campus.
“For one, you get to live with your friends and classmates. It was a very tightknit community there. It was also nice not having to commute and having all your classes close by. This gave me a lot more time to focus on my education and other things. Plus, the meal plan was nice because I didn’t have to worry about preparing meals.”
This living arrangement allowed him to engage with several groups and organizations as well. For instance, he served as president of the Computer Club.
“We tried to make it a place where students could get their feet wet with computer science,” he says. “We did weekly coding challenges and talked about topics in some of our classes. I specifically remember some of our members talking about building a robot to grow plants. Overall, I wanted the club to be a one-stop shop for students to improve their computer science skills and giving them the chance to pick up hirable skills.”
Dr. Bryan Reagan, a former associate professor of computer science, was the faculty advisor for the Computer Club.
“He was always extremely willing to help,” Waitkevich says. “He would even give mini lectures to club members.”
In addition to his involvement with the Computer Club, Waitkevich was also a member of the Math Club.
“The purpose of this club is to get people interested in math. We played math games and had short lectures on different topics.”
Additionally, he attended some events hosted by University Ministry, including a Bible study group and Mass. He even wrote a few articles for The Lions’ Pride student newspaper. Recreationally, he played intramural tennis and volleyball.
He points to community, integrity, and excellence as being the most impactful Saint Leo University core values.
“The professors are always straightforward with their students and present their material with integrity,” he says.
Overall, the student-to-faculty ratio was perhaps the biggest perk for him as a student.
“The small class sizes and quality of professors made for a great mix,” he says. “You should definitely have less stage fright to ask questions in a small class.”
After completing both of his Saint Leo degrees in 2021, Waitkevich has continued his higher education journey at the University of South Florida in Tampa. He took a few courses that following spring before officially enrolling in the Ph.D. in math program in the fall of 2022. While he entered the doctorate program without a master’s degree, he had the option to attain it while working toward his Ph.D. He says his courses at Saint Leo prepared him well for graduate school.
“With teaching, you can make a big impact on lots of people,” he says. “I knew I needed my Ph.D. to teach at the college level.”
Like Saint Leo, his doctoral program boasts small classes. He was also offered a teacher’s assistantship, a position that fully covers the cost of his tuition.
Waitkevich was bitten by the teaching bug several years ago. While attending Saint Leo, he got the chance to tutor a number of students in math and computer science in the Center for Academic Vision and Excellence (CAVE).
“That experience made me enjoy teaching others,” he explains. “It’s a nice feeling knowing you’ve helped someone understand something.”
He has also gotten his feet wet as a substitute teacher for Pasco County Schools. He has taught at Hudson High School, Fivay High School, and Land O’Lakes High School. Courses have included math, science, social studies, English, and Spanish.
“Subbing was a nice experience, but I realized teaching at the high school level was not for me,” he says. “At the college level, the students mostly want to be there and are more committed to their academics. This is especially true if they choose to be a math major.”
His goal is to teach either college algebra or discrete math. For now, he is working full speed ahead on completing his doctoral studies.
“Hopefully, I can be the next Dr. Phil,” he says with a laugh, paying homage to the longtime TV talk show host.
Photo credit: The photographs included in this blog article were provided by Phillip Waitkevich and Dr. Monika Kiss and are used with permission.