They juggled masks, Zoom backgrounds, social distancing, and online and hybrid classes during the academic year, but on May 21 and May 22, Saint Leo University students gathered with family and friends to celebrate their graduation. This year, Saint Leo celebrated the graduates at three in-person ceremonies at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa.

The university awarded more than 1,250 bachelor's, master's, doctoral, and associate degrees. Members of the Class of 2020 were invited to join the Class of 2021 for these ceremonies and more than 250 did so. The graduates studied at the main campus north of Tampa in St. Leo, FL; at its Florida education centers in Tampa, Ocala, Lake City, and Jacksonville and at the East Pasco Education Center locations in Pasco and Hernando counties; at MacDill Air Force Base (Tampa) and Naval Station Mayport (Jacksonville), and online throughout the world.

These commencement ceremonies looked a little different as masks were required and social distancing was in place in keeping with COVID-19 safety practices. However, the graduates and their families enjoyed coming together in person to mark the occasion and celebrate an educational milestone.

Thank you for getting us to this day," University President Jeffrey D. Senese said to the assembled graduates and faculty. He praised the students for the resilience they demonstrated in adjusting to changes in class format in order to complete their degrees; "Hold onto that throughout your lifetime." He also urged the new degree recipients to keep the friends they made with fellow students during their education.

On Friday (May 21) evening, 388 degrees were awarded to College of Education and Social Services Doctor of Education: school leadership and Education Specialist: educational leadership graduates; College of Arts and Sciences graduate students; and WorldWide undergraduate students—those who studied online and at Saint Leo's Florida education centers.

Saint Leo conferred degrees to 471 students in a morning ceremony on Saturday, May 22, to Tapia College of Business and College of Education and Social Services graduate students. In addition, there were 22 students who received both their bachelor's and master's degrees in the morning. At Saturday afternoon's ceremony, 409 students—University Campus undergraduates and Tapia College of Business Doctor of Business Administration students—received their degrees.

'When Things Go Left Instead Of Right...'

U.S. Air Force veteran Brianna Holman of Plant City, FL, who earned a Bachelor of Social Work degree, addressed her fellow graduates on Friday evening. Holman noted that after receiving a medical discharge from her military service, her life was in a tailspin. "I did everything right, but things somehow went left," she said.

Holman prayerfully considered her next step and decided to major in social work in order to make a difference in people's lives and to help other veterans who may be struggling.

"As we leave here tonight and continue with our future endeavors, you will have moments in your life where you will feel like you have done everything right, but things still go left," she told her fellow graduates. You might study for hours and not earn a high enough GPA. There might be something amiss with graduate school, or you might not get your dream job at the time. But, you will have tonight and this degree to remind you that if you have done everything right, things can still go left. However, now you have proof that left is not defining your trajectory in life. We all have the strength and accomplishments to regain the right footing and move forward."

'Be The Guiding Light For Others'

Jodi Slone of Brooksville, FL, received her Master of Education: educational leadership degree, and gave the student farewell at the Saturday morning ceremony. She is the assessment coordinator for D.S. Parrott Middle School in Hernando County, FL, and has accepted an offer to become Dean of Students for the 2021-2022 school year.

"During the course of my studies, I was provided with many opportunities to research in a specific field of focus," she said. "My passion has been in the area of underprivileged youth, specifically minority subgroups. I discovered a trend among the African-American and ESE [Exceptional Student Education] subgroups. There is a noticeable achievement gap between these students and their peers. The assignments I was challenged with allowed me to dig deeper and find some root causes as to why this gap exists. As the assessment coordinator for my school this year, I lived in the world of data and used this to fuel my research. Through strategic planning and the support of an amazing team of teachers, I have seen outstanding results.

"Gandhi told us to 'Be the change we want to see in the world.' Though that may sound cliché, it has never been truer nor would it be more appropriate than with this group of graduates in front of me. Thanks to the guidance of my professors and support of those who I work with, I was able to embrace these words and live by them. I urge you to do the same. Wherever life takes you from here, be the change. Chase your passions and be that guiding light for others along the way."

Top Undergraduates

The highest honors went to Chloe Padron of Spring Hill, FL, who is the Class of 2021's valedictorian. Padron earned a Bachelor of Arts in management. Padron was selected to give the farewell to her classmates at the afternoon commencement ceremony.

"Graduates, let us remind ourselves that today marks a day of accomplishment, a day of success for not only you, but your family members and loved ones as well," Padron said. "From sharing a room in Henderson, Benoit, Marmion and Snyder, Alumni, or Roderick, to learning how to cook ramen noodles with a microwave freshman year, we did it!

"Those all-nighters at the library, studying by yourself or with friends, was worth it. Each of you should be proud of your accomplishments and give back to the university with your time, talent, and treasure. For the alumni out there, we are proud to be a part of the Saint Leo pride! Thank you and congratulations to the class of 2020 and 2021! Go, Lions!"

Salutatorian Nicholas Sobestanovich of Land O' Lakes, FL, received his Bachelor of Arts in accounting, and is working at an internship at certified public accounting firm Strategis CPAs and Consultants in suburban Tampa.

The students honored during the weekend commencement ceremonies were from all walks of life and earned degrees to satisfy a range of personal goals and career ambitions. Friday night's ceremony, for instance, honored seven learners, two men and five women, who earned the Master of Arts in theology. Saint Leo offers the graduate program for two main audiences. Some want the advanced learning from a Christian Catholic perspective as they are religion teachers or youth ministers, serve as dedicated volunteers in faith works, or want a deeper personal understanding of religion. The Saint Leo University theology program also is the academic curriculum of choice for several Roman Catholic dioceses that have men preparing to become permanent deacons in the Catholic Church.

During the weekend, the university also awarded graduate degrees to those who want to progress in their careers in areas such as business, education, public safety, social work, and human services. Undergraduates at Saint Leo have a broad range of degree fields to choose from, as well. Most participants in the Saturday afternoon ceremony were traditional-age college students, who earned their four-year degrees at University Campus. In spite of the difficulties the economy has endured, bright spots are apparent as new graduates already have received employment offers or acceptances into graduate programs in the medical field, law, accounting, and other specialty areas. A related story details some graduates' next steps.

Surprise for Mom

At 67, Dianna Davis Mitchem of Spring Hill, FL, achieved a dream 43 years in the making: earning a college degree. Mitchem received an Associate of Arts degree at Saint Leo's Friday (May 21) commencement ceremony.

But perhaps even better than that was the surprise she received. Her son, U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Terrell Davis, astonished her at the ceremony with his appearance on the commencement stage. Just after Mitchem had her name announced and accepted a congratulatory handshake from President Sense she stopped and squealed. There was the son she had not seen in two years, smartly dressed in his Navy blues, approaching her from the opposite end of the stage and bearing red roses. The two shared a long embrace as the audience stood and clapped; Davis then took his mother's arm and escorted the college graduate back to her seat.

Her family members arranged the special gift in gratitude for long support of them.

"Just as she has been encouraging us, we as a family have been loving, supporting, praying, and encouraging her to reach her goal," said Terrell's brother, John Davis, of Spring Hill, FL, who helped plan the big reveal.

Up Next

Saint Leo's commencement season continues with a June 11 ceremony in Savannah, GA, for students from the Savannah Education Center as well as graduates from the university's online programs and from other education centers.

To watch the Saint Leo University commencement ceremonies from May 21 and May 22, go to