Growing up, Sr. Mary Jackson politely said to herself "no thank you" when pondering the idea of becoming a nun. Little did she know she would completely embrace the lifestyle and become a successful educator with a Saint Leo master's education.

The 40-year-old native of Corning, N.Y. is now a resident of Tampa, Fla. She graduated from Corning East High School, now known as Corning Painted Post High School.

Choosing a Saint Leo Master's Program

Before flocking south to Florida, she earned a bachelor's in education with a concentration in math from SUNY Cortland. She explains how she initially learned about Saint Leo University when considering graduate studies.

"We had an info session at our school where I was working," she says. "They explained the education programs and how they could help us advance our careers. I was really interested in the master's in educational leadership program they offer. I did know of their great reputation as a university and thought it would be a wonderful place to pursue my graduate degree. I talked with an admissions counselor and decided to move forward with it."

She began the program in 2016 and completed the coursework in 2018. This particular program held face-to-face classes at Tampa Catholic High School on Thursday evenings. In the summer, students took online courses.

From her experience, the online portion of the program kept her connected to her classmates and instructors even though she had never taken any courses online prior to this.

"We still had plenty of responsibilities for the online classes. We had to be online at certain times and could talk with our professors and classmates either using a microphone or a chat."

She says she was very impressed with the faculty members in this Saint Leo master's program.

"Each professor had specific and unique gifts to share," she says. "I was impressed with each because they brought their authentic experiences to the table. They even shared a lot of the challenges they had faced in their own careers, which was very helpful. They were all very engaging and taught us so much that we could apply to our own careers in education."

The classes were quite varied and practical for her as well.

"There were several different kinds of pedagogies used in the curriculum, which was a really nice variety of teaching styles," she says. "I learned such a wide range of practical subjects that included state and federal laws, budgeting, how to interview potential teachers for jobs and so much more. We also had a mentor principal we got to work with on a regular basis who was very hands-on."

For Jackson, two of Saint Leo's core values have made a large impression on her life and career.

"Excellence and respect really stand out to me. As someone who works in education, everything we do for our students and teachers should be the best and should always come with lots of respect. I should also mention that respect seemed to be a common theme among all of the classes I took in the master's program."

Advice to Prospective Saint Leo Master's Students

She has some honest advice for anyone contemplating earning a Saint Leo master's degree in education or another discipline.

"Don't be afraid to try this program or any Saint Leo master's program," she says. "This program is very reasonable in terms of expectations and pace of the coursework. Most master's students have full-time jobs, family commitments and other obligations. The professors are extremely understanding of this. They want you to learn and be successful. They shared their cell phone numbers and always made themselves available to us. It's very comforting having this support."

A Life-Changing Faith

One of five children, Jackson grew up in a Catholic household and attended Sunday School as a youngster.

"Our parents taught us that we should always give back to the community we live in. So, my siblings and I would hand out bulletins at church. When we got older, we then started helping out in Sunday School classes."

She was just starting high school when she fully embraced her Catholic faith and realized the true benefits of practicing Catholicism.

"At some point, you have to make your faith your own," she shares. "When I was in ninth grade, it went from me knowing my faith in my mind to knowing it in my heart. I realized God himself loves me for who I am and is present in the Eucharist."

By the time Jackson was in college, she started thinking more and more about the possibility of becoming a nun at some point in her life.

"I honestly did not know many nuns growing up and kind of thought to myself that this particular lifestyle would never be for me. I did know that they had to take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. It was quite a process of discernment and knowing what God was calling me to do."

She got on the computer and searched for local groups of sisters in her area. Four days after graduating from college with her undergraduate degree, she took a leap of faith and joined a convent – the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, also referred to as the Salesian Sisters.

"I was in a serious relationship at the time, but my boyfriend was very encouraging to me that I pursue this dream of mine," she confides.

A Unique Transition

The process of becoming a nun is quite involved and takes time.

"In your first year, you start out as an aspirant," Jackson says. "Then you live with other sisters and really get to know them. Then you become a postulant for about a year before moving into the novitiate phase for two years, which involves strict prayer and studies. Then you take your first vows as a sister and receive your habit, vale and crucifix. This is followed by four years of your temporary profession with one profession per year, bi-annuals and then finally your perpetual vows."

Jackson has served as principal at Villa Madonna School for the past six years. The school educates children from age three through eighth grade and has about 350 total students. She previously taught theology and math at the school before teaching at a high school and then returning to Villa Madonna as principal.

In college, she ran track and played soccer. She has since coached both soccer and basketball.

Learning the Lifestyle

She currently lives with four other sisters at the Villa Madonna convent. The other nuns are fellow educators. The group puts on sacramental retreats, gives talks throughout the diocese and is closely involved in other community events for young people.

In terms of their lifestyle, she describes what she and her fellow sisters do each day outside of teaching.

"We have certain hours throughout the day in which we pray. We also meditate frequently and do spiritual readings. For fun, we like to attend sporting events where our students are playing to cheer them on and also play card games."

In addition to her full-time work as a principal and duties with her fellow sisters, Jackson has made time to lend a helping hand to various organizations in the Tampa Bay area. She has volunteered for Hands of Hope at Sacred Heart Catholic Church where she and her students prepare and serve food to the homeless. She has also done work with Mary Help of Christians Parish in Tampa.