When Ammar Mohrat was looking for a new life in a new home, he couldn't have been more grateful when Saint Leo University came calling.

The 27-year-old grew up in the city of Homs, Syria. He now resides in Tampa, Fla. He'll never forget the first day he set foot on American soil on July 7, 2013 in Miami before enrolling at Saint Leo that fall.

Beginnings in a Unique Land

Mohrat says growing up in Syria allowed him to lead a fairly normal childhood.

"Like other kids, I was raised playing soccer and video games," he recalls. "Life wasn't really hard at that time, but I wouldn't say it was that easy, either."

Everything changed in 2011 when there was an uprising against the Syrian regime, he says.

"People were told that you can't speak out against the corruption. Even if you were in a room with four walls, you were probably being spied on. If you got caught, you'd be taken away and would never see the light of day again. You are not treated as a human with rights and freedoms like people have in America, and there was really no future you had there."

He admits he was a political activist under pseudonyms and had a number of friends who were arrested – and even killed – for similar activism against the corruption.

"If your friends were arrested, the government would use torture techniques just to get more names out of them," he says.

At age 20, his parents encouraged him to leave his homeland for Jordan where he spent time before coming to the United States. His immediate family members left as well, and they now live in Istanbul, Turkey. He has other relatives spread out in France, Jordan and Lebanon.

Excelling at Education

Mohrat attended high school and some college in Syria, studying information technology and computer science. A self-proclaimed "tech nerd," he says his dad bought a computer for the first time when he was just six years old.

Since his college coursework was completed at a public institution run by the government, he was unable to obtain his transcripts to use toward a future degree.

"So, I basically had to start over from scratch," he says.

He first learned about Saint Leo through Jusoor Syria, a U.S.-based nonprofit that helps connect young Syrians with educational and career opportunities. It was a scholarship he found through another nonprofit, the International Institute for Education (IIE), that further drew him to the university.

"When I lived in Jordan, there were lots of American schools offering scholarships to students there."

After applying and having several conversations, he was ultimately offered two scholarships to come to Florida and attend University Campus.

"I got a call from Laura Rodriguez in the admissions office after midnight my time. She said I had been accepted. It was the best day of my life, and I even cried a little. I probably spent until 7 a.m. going online and looking at photos of the campus. Even though I was so happy, a good friend of mine did not get into a school he applied to simply because he was from Syria, and that really bothered me."

In the fall of 2013, he came to Saint Leo and began his American academic journey toward a bachelor's degree in computer science.

"I had a great experience," he says. "The campus was a lot of fun. My first year, I had an American roommate who was really nice. I got to spend that winter break with his family."

Throughout his curriculum, a class on artificial intelligence (AI) was one that stood out for him.

Mohrat was part of the Bridge Program, which is designed for international students to help them improve upon their English speaking and writing skills. It was Iona Sarieva and Nataliya Glover who positively impacted him in this program.

"I realized that if you can't speak English well, it's going to be hard to make friends," he shares. "Now, I can actually write English better than Arabic."

He adds that being immersed in the American culture was a huge benefit to learning the language.

In terms of campus life, he was quite active. he joined the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity and was a member of the computer science club, information security club and multiple honor societies.

"You never know who might be a future employer or employee down the road, so I think it's so important to make these connections."

His religion was fully accepted by his peers, he says.

"Even though it's a Catholic university and I am a Muslim, they welcomed me with open arms," he says. "They accept everyone, which is something I love about the school."

Saint Leo Core Values

There are two key Saint Leo core values that made an impression on him.

"I really learned about respect and how you should respect everyone around you, regardless of where they are from, their skin color, religion or anything else about them. This should follow you throughout your life. Also, personal development is a big one. On campus, everyone is working to develop themselves, and you get the opportunity to compete for spots in student government or other groups."

He wrapped up his bachelor's in 2017 and was selected to be the commencement speaker at his graduation ceremony.

"I was a little scared because lots of my American friends would tease me about my accent, and then they chose me to be the speaker on their best day," he recalls. "I didn't have much public speaking experience, either, but I just focused on my speech and the arena we were in. I thought I did a pretty good job." (Read the full speech here.)

Education Pays Off

Thanks to his degree from Saint Leo, Mohrat has been able to find work in his desired field. He currently has a full-time service engineering job with FairWarning, an information security company in Clearwater, Fla. He also holds a part-time position as a service and product expert at a Microsoft retail store in Tampa.

"I get to work in an office environment and then in retail, so it has allowed me to learn the business practices in both areas. I would like to be self-employed and have my own business in AI someday."

Always hungry for more knowledge and experience, Mohrat has a unique motto for his age.

"The day you stop learning is the day you die," he says. "I'm always excited to be learning new things."

Words for Prospective Students

If you're considering Saint Leo for higher education, Mohrat has some guidance for you.

"Enjoy your time at Saint Leo," he says. "Pick a major that you like and that can benefit you in 10 or 20 years. I'd also say don't stick with only people from your own culture. Make friends with people from other places and cultures. Finally, learn as much as you can."

Photo credit: The photograph included with this blog article was provided by Ammar Mohrat and is used with permission.