Growing up on the other side of the globe in Christchurch, New Zealand, Claire de Souza may not have originally thought she'd wind up in the Saint Leo ROTC program. However, she has never looked back on this life-changing decision.

Affectionately nicknamed "D," the 22-year-old is the second youngest of eight children. Her father's job was transferred to the U.S., and the family relocated to South Carolina when she was still in grade school.

Selecting Saint Leo

She attended and graduated from Military Magnet Academy in North Charleston, S.C. It was a guidance counselor at her high school who recommended she visit a certain website that would eventually connect her to Saint Leo University.

"They told us to go to and research schools on there," she recalls. "Saint Leo was one of the first to pop up. It was actually one of the first I applied to and the last I heard from. They offered me an ROTC scholarship, and when I visited University Campus and saw how beautiful it was, I knew I made the right decision. I love how the buildings have that monastic style to them."

A Memorable College Career

Now just weeks away from collecting her diploma, she is on the brink of earning a Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice with a specialization in Homeland Security.

She began her higher education journey toward this undergraduate degree by enrolling at Saint Leo in the fall of 2015. She talks about how she decided on the criminal justice track.

"I've always been fascinated by criminal justice, and I've had a goal of wanting to be part of the FBI," she says. "So, it really was the perfect major for me."

She points to Drs. Bobby Sullivan and Joseph Cillo as some of her favorite professors within the Saint Leo criminal justice program.

"They have such a wealth of knowledge," she says.

Along with her Saint Leo ROTC training and academic life, she has been extremely active in extracurricular activities, which living on campus has enabled her to do. She has been involved in Leo for St. Jude, a fundraiser for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. She has served as treasurer of the Alpha Phi Sigma criminal justice honor society. Additionally, she was named to the Omicron Delta Kappa leadership society.

Advancing in the Saint Leo ROTC Program

She began in the Saint Leo ROTC training program shortly after she enrolled, joining the Suncoast Battalion that also includes students from the University of South Florida in Tampa.

"When I started, I was a little nervous knowing I'd be going into the Army in just four years as an officer and could command a platoon of between 30 and 50 troops."

Fortunately, her nerves were eased because of how close everyone is with each other.

"It's a small program here, so it is truly like a family. Everyone is willing to help you out and support you all the time."

According to de Souza, most of the training has been done at Saint Leo, but basic infantry tactics training is conducted near the USF campus in Tampa.

In January, she was part of a Saint Leo ROTC team that competed in the Brigade Ranger Challenge at Camp Blanding in north Florida. This annual event allows cadets to compete in drills, field exercises and in a written exam. Fellow Saint Leo ROTC cadets Jeremy Moser and Peter Pappalardo were also part of the team. They placed tenth out of about 40 teams.

"We all pushed each other and worked really hard," she says.

In the summer of 2018, she got the opportunity to go to Brazil and train with members of the Brazilian military. She also trained and got to shadow a lieutenant at Fort Knox in Kentucky and a second lieutenant at Fort Bliss in Texas.

Once she becomes a commissioned Army officer upon graduation, she will train as an engineer at an Army base in Missouri for over four months. Following that, she could be stationed at a variety of locations either stateside or in another country.

In terms of her career aspirations, she is taking an open-minded approach.

"There are many avenues I could take, and I really want to leave the door open. I think I'd like to get into welding at some point."

Soaking Up Saint Leo's Core Values

According to de Souza, there are several parallels between Saint Leo's core values and the values she has learned as a cadet.

"I'm partial to those core values because many are similar to what is instilled in us in the Army," she says. "You become a better person when you apply them to your own life."

Many of the individuals she has met and developed relationships with exemplify these values as well.

"From my classmates to my instructors to even the custodians on campus, they are all wonderful people and have some advice or perspective they can offer on making you a better person."

A Unique Attitude

She offers up a motto she lives by each day.

"Always do your best and nobody can ask any more of you. Also, always offer a helping hand to those behind you."

Photo credit: The photograph included in this blog article was provided by Saint Leo ROTC cadet Claire de Souza and is used with permission.