By completing Saint Leo's online psychology program to earn a college degree, Mustafa Mahdi serves as a role model for the teens he mentors.

As a juvenile probation officer for Georgia's Fulton County Juvenile Court, Mustafa Mahdi has seen scores of teenagers heading down the wrong path in life – second-generation substance abusers who have been suspended or expelled from several schools they have attended.

A U.S. Air Force veteran, the father of four will do anything he can to help these young people turn their lives around.

"We all have a story. We all have challenges," he tells the teenagers he works with in the Fulton County Drug Court Program called C.H.O.I.C.E.S. – an intervention program targeting court-involved youth aged 14 to 17 who use alcohol or other drugs.

"I'm a probation officer, but I'm also a big brother and father figure —whatever they need me to be to help them be successful."

That includes college student in Saint Leo University's online psychology degree program – and now university graduate.

"I tell them that if I can earn a college degree, then they can, too."

The teens Mustafa works with are part of his motivation for completing a bachelor's degree. The other reason is his own children—whom he encouraged to pursue college educations, and who then started asking him when he was going to earn a degree himself.

"I started thinking that if I'm in the business of encouraging people to pursue excellence in education, then I better get my bachelor's degree."

Changed lives

As Mustafa has been working on earning his degree, he has been challenging the teenagers he supervises to pursue their educations, as well—whether that's earning a GED or enrolling in a vocational or trade school program – and completing their goals by the time he completes his so they all can celebrate together.

"Our teens come from really challenging situations. Some of their mothers have been murdered. Some have never seen their fathers. Some fathers come into their lives and then disappear. You have to have creative ways to get them to care," he says.

"When they see I'm actually studying, they get motivated. I tell them that after work, I go home and do homework, too."

Three teens, in particular, have taken the challenge to complete an education program to heart.

One teen had been smoking marijuana regularly and skipping school. He decided to set an example for his younger siblings by enrolling in a job certification program to become an auto mechanic. He has now voluntarily enrolled in a 6-month National Guard sponsored G.E.D. Program called Youth ChalleNGe Academy.

Another teen, who had been on the run from probation for three months, participated in a voluntary six-month boot camp program to earn his high school diploma. When he finished the program, he applied for a job at a fast-food restaurant. Mustafa sat with him through the job interview and was impressed with how articulate the teen had become. The teen is still employed, goes to work every day, and wants to become a manager.

A third teen had a serious stuttering challenge, yet tested off the charts at the collegiate level. Through Mustafa's encouragement and the teen's hard work, he now attends school every day and his stuttering has diminished. His instructors call him an "exceptionally bright student with great potential".

"You have to celebrate everything they accomplish, because it inspires them to do more," Mustafa says.

Saint Leo's reputation

One of the reasons Mustafa chose Saint Leo's online psychology degree program was the school's reputation for meeting the needs of nontraditional students, particularly veterans and adults with backgrounds in law enforcement.

Often called to meet at odd hours with teens arrested or in jail, Mustafa needed a flexible degree program that would accommodate his unpredictable schedule.

"The professors at Saint Leo are some of the most understanding people I've ever met," he says.

Mustafa says his courses have not only helped him better understand the population he works with daily, but he shares insight and knowledge from his psychology, philosophy and religion classes with the teens.

"The program has greatly enhanced my ability to serve our young people," says Mustafa. "Each class has given me greater insight into what the teens and families I work with are dealing with. I can talk to my teens and use the things I picked up in the classes."

Goal: helping younger children as a teacher

According to Mustafa, graduating from college at 59 is particularly significant to him because his parents never earned degrees.

"I thought I would be finished with school after getting my bachelor's degree, but it's going to be weird not having courses to work on. I may pursue a master's degree."

When Mustafa considers his future after retiring as a probation officer, he doesn't plan to stop working. Instead, he may pursue certification and start a new career as teacher. He would like to work with students earlier in life, before they go down the path where they encounter a probation officer.

"When you try to undo years of deprivation, abuse, neglect, molestation and drug dependency—it's hard. As a probation officer, you're trying to undo a lot of hurts and habits, but if maybe I could catch kids in preschool, then I can start to lay a foundation to empower children and families to overcome their challenges early on."

Image credits: Mantinov on Shutterstockand courtesy Mufafa Mahdi