In both his personal and academic endeavors, Miles Surdi, the 2015 Center for Online Learning commencement speaker, lives Saint Leo's core values.

Salvatore Surdi, a devout Catholic and second generation Italian-American, dreamed that his four daughters would earn college degrees from Saint Leo University – a school he had always highly regarded for its rich Benedictine traditions.

But a six-year battle with a brain tumor, which began when he was just 33, cut Salvatore's life short, leaving his dream unfulfilled.

Until last week.

On May 1, 2015, 40 years after Salvatore's death, Miles Surdi – the grandson he never met – became the first in his family to earn a degree from Saint Leo University. The 21-year-old, who completed the university's online accounting degree program with high honors, was selected to represent his class as this year's Center for Online Learning commencement speaker.

"I am humbled by this honor," he says. "My mother was not able to attend Saint Leo University due to the circumstances of her father's death, but she carried on his values and beliefs. My grandfather's aspirations conferred to his children and my mother's aspirations to me."

Rising to every challenge

Miles's journey to the graduation stage was not easy.

Before he was 2-years-old, Miles's mother, Kalisa Surdi, suffered a severe spinal cord injury – leaving her a quadriplegic and raising questions about whether she would be able to care for her only child.

With a great deal of help from Mickey Huddleson – a good Samaritan who stepped in during the family's crisis and became "grandpa" to Miles, as well as the primary male role model in his life – Kalisa survived. She made a remarkable recovery that enabled her to raise her son.

"She's the strongest woman I know," Miles says. "She raised me by herself with very little outside help."

Together, Miles and Kalisa are a formidable team.

"I help her," he says, "and she helps me. She's always been very supportive."

Learning from home early on

For most of his childhood, Miles was home-schooled by his mother. He developed an affinity for math and finance and excelled at his studies.

"I was always taught to teach myself and pursue things of my own volition," he says.

So when Kalisa mentioned Saint Leo as a way to continue his education, Miles began researching the university's online degree programs that would allow him to study from home and still help his mother. By the time he was 17, Miles was enrolled at Saint Leo full time, pursuing a bachelor's degree in accounting.

"I thought accounting would be a great fit for me; it's a very stable field with lots of opportunities," he says, "and it will allow me to merge my interest in other areas, such as information technology and information security. " 

Commitment to Saint Leo's core values

From the outset, Miles was determined to be an exceptional student. He challenged himself to be on the dean's list each semester and to graduate Summa Cum Laude. Finishing his program with a 3.981 GPA, he achieved both goals.

But that was only part of his commitment.

As he began his college journey, Miles set out to become a well-rounded individual, studying an array of topics, living Saint Leo's core values, taking on leadership roles and becoming a part of the Saint Leo community.

He achieved what he set out to do.

In 2013, Miles was named president of the online Pacioli Accounting Club; he was inducted into Sigma Beta Delta, an international honors society for students in business, management and administration; and he applied for a Rhodes Scholarship.

In addition, he developed bonds with his teachers and advisers and reached out to students. When he could, he donated his time to help elderly and homebound residents in his community with computer issues.

Connecting with the university community

Renelda Merzius, Miles's student advisor, was one of the first connections he made at Saint Leo.

"From the beginning, I could tell she really cared about my academic journey," he says. Along with helping ensure Miles was on the right track academically, she went above and beyond, doing research and networking on his behalf to facilitate his Rhodes Scholarship application.

"She went beyond anything I could have expected," he says, adding that meeting Renelda in person for the first time was one of the highlights of his graduation.

He is grateful for the support he has received at Saint Leo, and encourages students to take advantage of the many resources available.

"While online learning can be just as challenging as traditional classroom learning, at Saint Leo it is met with a great deal of flexibility and support," he says. "Student advisors, as well as faculty and staff, are very accommodating. Do not be afraid to ask for help."

And do not be afraid to get involved.

Small-school feel

As an online student, Miles looked for ways to become involved in the Saint Leo community. The Pacioli Accounting Club provided an ideal opportunity to interact with students pursuing similar fields.

The group meets online on the first and third Wednesday of every month to hear a speaker, discuss accounting issues and explore opportunities in the workforce.

"I never missed a meeting," he says.

"I am still amazed at how Saint Leo creates a sense of community despite the challenges of online learning."

The club helped forge his relationship with accounting professor Emil Koren, who he credits with helping him focus his career path.

"His knowledge of the field is phenomenal," Miles says, likening it to a 'library' of accounting information. "He is a fantastic professor."

Fulfilling the dream

As he delivered his commencement speech, Miles knew his mother would be pleased – and expected she would probably even cry a little.

"This is something she always wanted," he says.

With his grandfather, Salvatore's, dream now fulfilled, Miles is turning his attention to the important job that lies ahead for his fellow graduates and him.

"We have accomplished a great deal on our own that was at least partly because of the influence of others; now it's our turn," he says. "We must exercise the knowledge we have acquired in ways that are morally and socially responsible to positively influence others."

Congratulations to all 2015 Center for Online Learning graduates!

Image Credits: Ben Watters/University Communications; Mike Dadez/Online Marketing; and courtesy Miles Surdi