It's the smallest of gestures -- the simple movement of a tassel from the right side of a mortar board to the left. Yet, it symbolizes one of life's most significant accomplishments – the conferral of baccalaureate degree.

For hundreds of soon-to-be Saint Leo alumni, the tradition is the realization of a dream. It's the completion of years of hard work and sacrifice, celebrated as a "commencement" – a new beginning.

If you've just started an online degree program, the finish line may seem a long ways off – a hazy destination in the future with days when you wonder what you've gotten yourself into. School. Work. Family. So many commitments and responsibilities that you may wonder what you were thinking when you set this goal for yourself.

Ask any Saint Leo grad, and they'll undoubtedly tell you to fear not and stay strong. It is doable. And it is worthwhile.

Here are some thoughts and words of encouragement from just a few members of Saint Leo University's Class of 2013 – busy, working adults with job and family responsibilities who made a commitment to themselves to stay the course – and did it!

Congratulations Class of 2013!

Amanda FunkhouserB.A. Criminal Justice-CriminalisticsDetention OfficerFlowery Branch, Ga.

Describe your experience at Saint Leo University.My experience has been great! My academic advisor, Donna Bleiler, has been incredible and really helped me feel like I could make it to graduation with no problems. Every person I have encountered from the online program has been wonderful. I also came to campus to take a class last spring and then the professors were great.

Why was getting your degree important to you?I always promised myself that I would go back to school and get my degree. However, life always found a way to postpone that; getting married, having children and having a career, etc. After getting laid off two times in less than three years I knew that it was the perfect time to get back to school. I wanted my children to see how much work I put into it and then be able to see the end result....graduation! Also, I wanted to make my husband proud; especially after everything he sacrificed so that I could return to school.

What was your greatest accomplishment as a student?I have to say that when I started college (a long time ago!!) I wasn't focused and really wasn't ready for all college required. Since returning to Saint Leo in 2009, I have earned all A's and one B and that wasn't an easy achievement!

How do you plan to use your degree?I really want to get in to the investigation field; whether as a criminalist or an actual investigator. No matter where I go from here, my degree will always speak to my dedication to improving my life and the lives of my loved ones. I think that will speak volumes to prospective employers.

What advice do you have for other online students?The best advice I could give other online students is to take one day at a time. It is easy to get bogged down and stress over how many classes still need to be taken or how many research papers still have to be written. Thinking only about graduation may make the journey more arduous than necessary. Just take one day at a time! On the weeks leading up to midterms, finals and research projects, I would have to take it one minute at a time.

Retania PattersonB.S. Health Care ManagementInsurance UnderwriterOcala, Fla.

Describe your experience at Saint Leo University.My experience at Saint Leo was amazing. I had the flexibility to learn from home, while at the same time, having an available teacher to help me when I became stuck or confused.

Why was getting your degree important to you?Before my stepfather passed away, I promised him that I would complete my degree, no matter what it took. So to actually have my degree makes me truly proud because I kept my word. I know that he is smiling down on me proud and happy.

What was your greatest accomplishment as a student?The fact that I completed my degree while working full time, raising two little kids, and being a wife to my husband. The focus that I had while completing my degree, to me, is a huge accomplishment.

How do you plan to use your degree?I currently work in the equine insurance industry and am considering switching over to insurance on the medical side. But who knows what tomorrow will bring. I am just excited that I can finally say that I have my degree!

Thanks, Saint Leo, for everything!

What advice do you have for other online students?Discipline and determination is the key to success for online learning. Just set your mind to it and it can be done.

Nathan TurnerB.S. Computer Information SystemsLearning Facilitator, Army and Air Force Exchange ServiceMontgomery, Ala.

Describe your experience at Saint Leo University.My experience has been up and down. I did not take my academics as seriously as I should have and it cost me some years in regard to education. If it were not for Saint Leo giving me another opportunity with my education, I honestly do not know where I would be. I am very thankful for all of my instructors and counselors who have played a valuable part in my life here.

Why was getting your degree important to you?I am one of the few who will actually get a collegiate degree in my family. I made a promise to my parents a long time ago that I would accomplish this task. I have a beautiful fiancé I will be marrying in the upcoming months. I have numerous people I have contacted and networked with for IT positions, but it all comes back to that degree.

What was your greatest accomplishment as a student?Making the Dean's List. I told myself that one day I would accomplish that and through much hard work, tears, years, and prayer, I did it.

How do you plan to use your degree?I am currently working on a few IT certifications to pair with my degree so that I can be even more marketable. Whether it is within my current company, a military position, etc., I will get an IT job. Once I do, I'm hitting the ground running!

What advice do you have for other online students?When the going gets tough and you feel you want to give up, remember Philippians 4:13.

Amber HansenB.A. SociologyProduct Specialist-Web and PrintSan Diego, Calif.

Describe your Experience at Saint Leo University.I chose Saint Leo because it was important to me to attend a school that has some history to it, one that has been providing distance learning and online education for more than a few years. It was also important to me that the school have an established campus because I believed there would be more of a community that I could be a part of. I am so glad I made those things a priority because my experience at Saint Leo has been marked by the community of learners and educators that have surrounded me. I am so looking forward to meeting for the first time, the students and professors whom I have been working with over the last few years.

Why was getting your degree important to you?At one point, I was going to be the first of my sisters to earn a degree. About a year from my expected graduation date, I was offered the chance to live in Europe and took it. That meant putting school on hold and both of my sisters since finished. I am not planning an immediate change of career with my degree, but when I am ready for a move I will have the backing that an education offers to prove to employers that I am not only experienced but educated. I will never again be overlooked simply because I didn't take that final step and finish my degree.

What was your greatest accomplishment as a student?Somehow managing to stay sane while working full time, caring for my husband, attempting to maintain my friendships and completing my assignments. It was a struggle for me to accept at first that earning A's was not always a reasonable goal if I was going to be able to focus on the other parts of my life too.

How do you plan to use your degree?I really just see it as a formal stamp of my ability to accomplish my goals. Having waited so long has been one of the biggest regrets of my life, and I'll never have to look at it that way again.

What advice do you have for other online students?Stick with it. Even when you'd rather be out spending time with your family and friends, even when you are tired. Take it one step at a time and keep going. It will be worth in the end. Also, give yourself a break every once in a while. I had to remind myself that a lot! 

Alyce ClarkB.A. Criminal JusticeForensic Investigator-Norfolk Police;Military Police Operations Sergeant in Virginia Army National GuardNorfolk, Va.

Describe your experience at Saint Leo University.I've been to several different colleges and universities and Saint Leo, by far, has been the best. I've been going to school since 1998 and have finally finished. The staff and advisors especially have been a great help.  Now on to my master's program!

Why was getting your degree important to you?I've been going to school since 1998 and have been on several military deployments while attending several different colleges. I have finally reached the goal of earning my B.A. It is important to me because I need it for advancement at work and in the military.

What was your greatest accomplishment as a student?My greatest accomplishment was my last semester of class. You know graduation is right around the corner and you really don't want to slack any. I had that criminal justice project, which seemed like a part time job every week. Completing that was an accomplishment in itself.

How do you plan to use your degree?I plan on using my degree for advancement at work and better pay. I'm also using it at work because I'm basically learning my job in a management position.

What advice do you have for other online students? Find a good pace for yourself and set realistic goals.

Yani ZikosB.A. Liberal StudiesPreparing to enter aerospace industry: completing aircraft fabrication certificate program, accepted into MBA in Aviation Program at Embry-RiddleSaint Augustine, Fla.

Describe your experience at Saint Leo University.I have had a wonderful experience at Saint Leo. My academic advisor, Jimmy Surin, was terrific. He was always there, on my side, helping me strategize on how to complete my degree. I had an excellent experience with both the financial aid and registrar's offices. The instructors were great, and I was thrilled with my choice of a liberal studies major. I studied everything from economics and accounting to law, and the instructors were terrific at making connections between the coursework and real life.

Why was getting your degree important to you?I went straight into a family business in Delaware out of high school and was quite successful. But then I moved to Florida and the business (industrial painting) just wasn't here. I tried several other jobs but was not competitive. I knew it was time to buckle down and get a degree. I originally thought I would study business, but after doing a lot of research, I became magnetized by liberal studies, and it has turned out great.

What was your greatest accomplishment as a student?Achieving a bachelor's degree in just 2½ years. I was able to get my associate's in 1½ years and then finished the bachelor's in another year. It was wild at times. I wondered if I had made a mistake by being so ambitious, but it worked out.

How do you plan to use your degree?I am using my degree to enter graduate school. I want to pursue a career in the aeronautical/aviation industry and will be starting a master of business degree program specializing in aviation through Embry-Riddle.

What advice do you have for other online students?Do not begin if you are not dead set on working hard and managing your time – and it's going to take up a lot of time! It takes discipline to come home from work and hit the books. But if you make the time and stay focused, it's definitely worth it. It's an excellent feeling to finish your degree.

Henry GarciaB.S. Health Care ManagementLogistics/Lead Inventory Manager, James Haley Veterans HospitalServed 23 years as an Army medic and medical supervisorTampa, Fla.

Describe your experience at Saint Leo University.I love this university because it allows me to express my faith and love for God. I thank God for Saint Leo and the blessing to be able to attend college in my later years. This has been an awesome journey for me. The staff has been outstanding in their support. The professors are great educators and care about the students. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't change a thing except for maybe doing it earlier in life.

Why was getting your degree important to you?Growing up in Ohio, I struggled in school as a special ed student. I dropped out of high school and joined the military. This has been a personal goal for me and an example for my children: to know that in life all things are possible when we continue to have hope and put God first.

What was your greatest accomplishment as a student?Learning how to keep the fear of failure in check and how to maneuver through my learning disabilities.

How do you plan to use your degree?I will use it to apply for positions of greater responsibilities and where I can make a difference.

What advice do you have for other online students?My advice would be to get it done while you're young. Online learning is the way to go if you work full time and have a family, but it does require time management and discipline.

Isabel MolinaB.A. Criminal JusticePatient LiaisonTampa, Fla.

Describe your experience at Saint Leo University.My experience has been amazing! The Adult Weekend & Evening Program suited me well. The professors are aware of the students' schedules and allow flexibility. I could not have done it without Saint Leo!

Why was getting your degree important to you?It has been a long life goal of mine. I wanted to finish what I started over 20 years ago. I am hoping that it will lead to more open doors.

What was your greatest accomplishment as a student?I had vast learning experiences. In fact, the first art class during my first semester opened up my eyes to art and humanities, and as a result, my plans are to travel overseas for further exploration.

How do you plan to use your degree?My plan is to secure a position in a government agency.

What advice do you have for other online students?My advice to online students is to read the material and not to allow yourself to fall behind. It is very easy to do and once you do, it makes the course work extremely challenging. Be proactive and stay on top of the game!

Keyla Y. CooperB.S. Health Care ManagementHealth care information receptionist at the Naval Branch Health  Clinic Port HuenemeServed in the Navy for five years as a hospital corpsmanCamarillo, Calif.

Describe your experience at Saint Leo University.I was first introduced to Saint Leo University at my first duty station in Mayport, Fla. 12 years ago. What caught my attention was the university's commitment to the military community. Saint Leo has helped me to accomplish my goals in a timely manner and approved all of my previous credits. From the moment I contacted Saint Leo and spoke to Ms. Gina Hannah about my goals, to the admission process and financial aid counseling with Ms. Marlene Tillman and Ms. Tricia Coursey, to my current advisor, Mr. Nicholas Macchio, it has being a pleasant professional experience. The entire academic staff pushed me to work hard and give my best. I will always be grateful.

Why was getting your degree important to you?Getting my degree means taking another step in life that helps me to become a successful professional in today's job market, a contributing member to our society, and able to support my family. I changed my goals about three different times, but I never, ever gave up and, most importantly, my family never gave up on me. Getting a degree became even more important after having my first child. I want my children to discuss in class one day what their ‘mami' does to serve the community. I want them to be proud of me.

What was your greatest accomplishment as a student?It has been a challenge to have the English language as my second language and still manage to succeed.

How do you plan to use your degree?I have a passion to help others especially the elderly population. I would love to start by becoming part of the health care administration staff at a long -term care facility to gain experience. My long term goal is to start my own health care business where I would create an affordable adult daycare with medical and non-medical services, where senior citizens can feel part of a community starting from the moment that they retire.  

What advice do you have for other online students?Life is about adventures. Don't be afraid of the unknown, of starting over again. You need to have passion, discipline, dedication, courage and commitment to achieve your goals. You have to be surrounded by people who will push you to the limit and support you in order to succeed. Do it for yourself – or for the most important person in your life.

Michael BoyerB.A. Criminal JusticePolice Officer, Modesto Police DepartmentServed 4 years as an aircraft crew chief with the U.S. Air Force and 6 years with the Army National Guard as an intelligence analyst; 40th Infantry Brigade Combat TeamModesto, Calif.

Describe your experience at Saint Leo University.My experience at Saint Leo has been very good. It has enabled me to earn my college degree while maintaining my professional career and has strengthened both my mind and spirit through its Catholic values-based curriculum.

Why was getting your degree important to you?Earning my degree was always important to me since I was a young child. Unfortunately, I couldn't afford to complete college until my later years, but it was always emphasized to me from my grandfather who was a huge influence in my life.

What was your greatest accomplishment as a student?My greatest accomplishment is probably being able to graduate Magna Cum Laude with a 3.92 GPA, despite working a demanding full-time job and raising a family. While it was difficult to stay focused at times, I made it a priority to earn good grades and do my best in every class.

How do you plan to use your degree?My degree is helpful in the promotion process with my agency and it will also allow me to teach criminal justice at the community college and technical college level, coupled with my experience. I also plan to continue my education at Saint Leo, pursuing a Masters of Business Administration degree starting this fall.

What advice do you have for other online students?While we each face our own challenges, and despite the various obstacles that life throws at us – such as medical issues, deployments, having to work multiple jobs, or even the loss of a job – please do not let that deter you or become an excuse from not achieving your dreams. Mountains that are never climbed are never conquered.

Congratulations to all Saint Leo graduates!

Image Credit: Saint Leo University Communications

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