The following is a first-person narrative written by Christopher Kent, a Saint Leo University alumnus and current Saint Leo graduate education degree student working toward his education specialist degree who also plans to pursue his Doctor of Education from Saint Leo.
My journey at Saint Leo University began by coincidence. As a high school sophomore, I was president of the school’s pro-life club. The club officers and teacher leaders were invited to a banquet following the March for Life in Washington, D.C. At the banquet, our group shared a table with a youth group from Clearwater, FL. That evening was the beginning of a lifelong friendship with members of the group.
Beginning His Higher Education Journey
After high school, I enrolled at a small college in Maryland where I planned to study medicine. I had been a fantastic student, but I struggled academically in college. I later had the chance to volunteer in the pediatric unit at a local hospital. The experience was eye-opening to me, and I reconsidered my decision to go into medicine.
Halfway through my second year, my grades were slipping, I had lost motivation, and I was confused about my future. I quit college in 1997 and moved in with my grandparents to help care for them. I worked three different jobs–one in the technology field and two in restaurants. I saw how little room there was for advancement in any corporate setting without a degree.
One evening, I was on the phone with my friend, Melissa, from that youth group. I shared that I wanted to go back to school, but I didn’t want to go to a large university where I was just a number, and I didn’t want to commute to a community college every day. She mentioned a small school near Tampa called Saint Leo College at the time. I decided to give it a shot. It was far enough from my home in Virginia that I would not be drawn home to family, friends, and jobs, but still close enough that I could go home for holiday breaks. My application was accepted, and I enrolled in the fall of 1998.
An Immediate Sense of Community at Saint Leo
That first year, I was welcomed into a group of friends who had met each other the year before. They treated me like a brother and helped me get acclimated to life in Florida. I was successful academically, and I participated in intramural sports and engaged in campus life. I also began to realize how much I liked the Tampa Bay area. While I missed home in Virginia, I equally loved my days in Florida. I felt like I had found my place.
My younger brother graduated high school in 1999 and was accepted to Arizona State University. He asked me if I would consider moving there with him. My brother and I are very close, but the decision to move was a tough one. I spoke to my advisor (the late Dr. Kurt van Wilt), and I had enough credits to have my associate degree conferred. If it didn’t work out, I could always re-enroll at Saint Leo University. I was accepted to ASU and moved to Tempe, AZ, in May of 2000. My eldest sister moved out there as well.
In April of 2001, my father had a massive stroke. He went into a nursing home for managed care, and my brother and I moved home to help our family. About two years later, my father passed away.
I continued working for a corporate restaurant in a managerial position and later worked as a bar manager at another restaurant. I had found that I was good at my job, but I was looking at life ahead differently since my father’s passing. He worked his life away before the stroke. I had hoped to get married and have my own children someday, and I did not want to be in a career that required me to work nights. I had been working a side job as a football and baseball coach at my high school, and I began to consider that education might be the right field for me.
Finding His Passion in the Classroom
In 2005, I applied for a job as a substitute teacher and was hired and trained. My first day on the job, I was assigned to a self-contained class for primary grade students with autism spectrum disorder. It was challenging, and I liked the challenge. The teacher I was subbing for chose to resign, and the principal offered me the job. However, I was not qualified. I needed a bachelor’s degree and teaching license. She then hired me as a teaching assistant in the same class and gave me some direction on where to seek my teaching certification.
I applied to several colleges but kept receiving rejection letters saying I was not eligible to apply. My grades were good, and I had an associate degree. I found out that I was listed as “academically ineligible” at a previous school because I had not taken the finals for certain courses. I had no idea what to do.
My friend, Dave McCarron, suggested I contact Saint Leo and talk with someone about my predicament. I did, and the advisor and I discussed my options.
Returning to a Special Place
I reapplied to Saint Leo and was accepted. I moved back to the area in 2006 and lived with Dave and his wife, Jenny, for a few months until I found an apartment. (Both are Saint Leo alumni, by the way.) I took classes three days a week and worked in a bakery.
I met my wife, Kasey, in one of our classes. She was sitting in front of me, and we were both pretty shy about talking to each other. Eventually, the shyness wore off, and we got to know one another. We began dating in June of 2007, and I proposed to her a year later. She graduated with her bachelor’s in elementary education degree in December of 2008, and I graduated with the same education degree the following May.
We were married in June of 2009 in the Saint Jude Chapel on the Saint Leo campus. Fr. Stephan Brown, the chaplain at the time, officiated this small, private Catholic ceremony. We had a large, public ceremony at Lake Jovita Country Club with my wife’s pastor, as well as Fr. Brown and about 200 family friends.
We began our careers as teachers in Pasco County, FL and quickly realized the school system has its own ladder for success. We knew we would need a master’s degree someday to make the most of our career. We decided to return to Saint Leo to pursue a Master of Education degree with a focus on reading instruction. Shortly after applying in the fall of 2011, we found out we were expecting our first child. Joseph was born in July of 2012, and we started our first class in August. We enrolled in each class together, encouraged each other, made a workable schedule, and worked hard. Joseph was baptized in Saint Jude Chapel, the same chapel in which we were married.
Our second son, Matthew, was born in November of 2013. This pregnancy had complications, and school took a backseat. We had to repeat the class we were taking that fall, pushing our graduation date out a bit. We finished our coursework in 2015 and had to pass a state certification test to have our degrees conferred. I passed in 2016 and was conferred my degree.
I enjoy working in education and I know this was the right decision for me, even if it took me many years to realize it. I have worked for different administrators over the last 14 years, and many have seen me as a leader in the school. I was encouraged to pursue leadership for several years but was apprehensive about making that change. I decided to pursue an Education Specialist degree and continue on to the Doctor of Education degree program if I am successful with the Education Specialist program. When Saint Leo introduced those programs in their College of Education and Social Services, I was approached about joining a cohort. I started in May of 2021 and am on my sixth course. I am proud of my effort and am doing well in the program, but I am more pleased with the example it sets for my sons. They have the opportunity to truly grow up in education. They get to see firsthand how much dedication it takes to find success, along with the sacrifices one has to make to achieve it.
A Happy Family Life
Our sons are in fourth and second grades now. They attend school in San Antonio just down the road from Saint Leo. I work at Pasco Elementary in Dade City as a graduation enhancement teacher and on the student services team. This is the same elementary school where I started during my internships in 2007 and 2008. Kasey was born in Tampa and has lived in Zephyrhills her whole life. She now teaches third grade at Woodland Elementary in Zephyrhills, a school she attended as a student.
Final Reflections on Saint Leo University
I love the life our family has built in this community, and I love that God has placed Saint Leo University at the epicenter of this life we share. It has been an incredible journey that has no end in sight for the near future. After the doctoral program, I may just want to continue the journey by teaching at the university in some capacity. Perhaps one of my sons will attend Saint Leo University or get married on campus.
I sometimes ponder what life would have been like if I had not attended that banquet all those years before. God works in mysterious ways, and it is clear to me that his plan for my life and my family’s life is far reaching and beyond my comprehension. At Saint Leo, the members of the pride strive to live the six core values of excellence, community, respect, personal development, responsible stewardship, and integrity as they leave the school and make their marks on the world. It is those same values that others shared with me in so many ways over my life that brought me here in the first place and brought me back again and again. Truly, Saint Leo has impacted multiple facets of my life, and that means the world to me. My world would not be what it is today without my experiences at Saint Leo.
Photo credit: The photographs included in this blog article were provided by Christopher Kent and are used with permission.