More than 1,300 students participated in Saint Leo University’s commencement ceremonies today (Saturday, May 13) at the Florida State Fairgrounds. Students from the university’s main campus, its Florida locations, and those who study online throughout the world came together to celebrate their achievements and receive their doctoral, master’s, bachelor’s, and associate degrees.

Morning Commencement Ceremony

During the morning ceremony, University Campus undergraduate students received their bachelor’s and associate degrees while graduate students in the College of Education and Social Services received their doctoral degrees in criminal justice and education and master’s degrees in criminal justice, education, emergency and disaster management, human services administration, instructional design, and social work.

Morning commencement speaker, Richard Gonzmart, fourth-generation “caretaker” of the 1905 Family of Restaurants based in Tampa, FL, which includes the world-famous Columbia Restaurant, shared insight with the graduates. He was introduced by former Florida legislator Ed Narain, a Saint Leo alumnus and secretary of the university’s board of trustees.

Richard Gonzmart

Gonzmart shared his struggles in school as he reordered letters, making reading difficult. As a running back for his high school football team, “I transposed my numbers,” he said. “I didn’t know whether to go this way or that way.”

He was diagnosed with dyslexia and attention deficit disorder at 43, which gave him an understanding of how the thinks.

“I have a gift. I think differently. If someone says something can’t be done, I say, ‘watch me,’” Gonzmart said to cheers from the crowd.

When his father died, Gonzmart said that he was not prepared to take over the family business and found that the company owed $278,000 sales tax. He worked with vendors and others as he paid the debt. “I give you my word and my handshake,” he said.

Through his hard work and diligence, the company grew to 2,000 employees. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, “We served 9,000 meals to our staff and their families,” Gonzmart said. “Take care of your employees. Who am I without them?”

Gonzmart said that every morning to keep himself focused, he reads a favorite quote written by George Bernard Shaw: “Life is no brief candle to me. It’s a sort of splendid torch I have hold for the moment; I want to burn as brightly before handing it off to future generations.”

“Congratulations, graduates — Be proud and wear your faith on your sleeve,” Gonzmart said. “And as I say daily: ‘Here’s to life and embracing each day with gratitude, passion, compassion, empathy, integrity, love, kindness, faith, and purpose!”

Outstanding Students

Angelica Molina Arbodleda

Earning top honors for the undergraduate Class of 2023 are valedictorian Angelica Molina Arboleda and salutatorian Maria Nakata. Molina Arboleda, a native of Colombia, was an Honors Program student, and graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in international studies and a minor in world politics. She now will attend the Syracuse University Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs to pursue a dual master's degree in public administration and international relations.

Nakata graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in criminal justice: criminalistics. In the fall, she will continue her education at the University of Florida, pursuing a Master of Science in pharmacy with a major in pharmaceutical sciences and a concentration in forensic science.

A Walk with Mom

Courtney Irby had a little help as she walked across the stage at the Florida State Fairgrounds to receive her Master of Education degree in educational leadership, thanks to her daughter, 16-month-old Maelani Rae Collins, who accompanied her.


Courtney Rae Irby

“I wanted to teach my daughter that no matter what, when life gets tough, to push through, and do the best you can,” Irby said. “Life is not a straight path; there are setbacks and failures, but if you can fall on your back and look up, then you can get up.”

Irby, the first in her family to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees, said she and her sister were in the foster care system and later adopted, but did not have great childhoods. Having a biological child wasn’t in her plans, but she met her fiancé, Cornelius, a single dad to a toddler daughter, Jizelle. “I loved her, and she loved me; she made me a mom first,” Irby said.

Soon she found out she was pregnant. “My first thought was to drop out of school,” Irby said. It took a toll on me being a full-time student, a full-time teacher, a mom, and commuting two hours to day cares for both kids and back home every day, all while breastfeeding and managing my emotions.” But she didn’t quit, even when her fiancé had to go to New York for work.

Irby was surrounded by love and help from family and those at Solid Rock Community School in Tarpon Springs, FL, where she teaches high school math. “With my new degree, I hope to work alongside the principal, Mickey Maioriana, at Solid Rock,” Irby said.

She also gave praise to Dr. Renee Sedlack, assistant professor of educational leadership: “She has been my biggest cheerleader and has always had my best interests at heart.”

‘Do Well, Do Good’

During the afternoon commencement ceremony, receiving their degrees were Saint Leo WorldWide online and Florida education center students; College of Arts and Sciences graduate students — master’s degrees in creative writing, psychology, and theology; Tapia College of Business graduate students — doctoral degrees in business administration and master’s degrees in accounting and business administration; and, School of Computing, Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, and Data Science graduate students — master’s degrees in computer science and cybersecurity.

Xavier Scruggs

Former Major League Baseball player and current ESPN/MLB Network analyst Xavier Scruggs gave the commencement address. Scruggs was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in 2008 and made his MLB debut with the team in 2014. Following his time with the Cardinals, Scruggs played for the Miami Marlins (FL) and in the Korean Baseball Organization, where he hit 61 home runs and had 208 RBIs.

Now, Scruggs serves as one of ESPN’s top MLB game analysts, regularly contributing to Baseball Tonight, Monday Night Baseball, Wednesday Night Baseball, and more. He is passionate about empowering athletes and creators as they transition to life after sports.

Scruggs acknowledged that most at the afternoon ceremony already are working in the professional world, but now the must “utilize your new talents.”

“There is no true fulfillment without using your own God-given gifts and talents to help others,” Scruggs said. “That is a priority for all of us.”

Scruggs quoted the baseball great Jackie Robinson, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”

“To me that sounds like a privilege and a responsibility for all of us,” he said.

Afternoon Commencement Ceremony

And, of course, the baseball analyst summed it up for the graduates with a baseball reference: “Swing for the fences,” Scruggs said. “Don’t be afraid to take chances and risks for new opportunities.”

Dr. Edward Dadez, university president, challenged the newly graduated to do more and be more. “Every graduate of the Class of 2023 is expected to follow the lead of over 100,000 Saint Leo alumni worldwide who preceded you by not only doing well, but also by doing good, as well as remaining faithful to the enduring values you learned here,” he said, listing the university’s core values of personal development, respect, integrity, community, excellence, and responsible stewardship.

“You truly appreciate the value of what you learned, the degree that you earned, and the university from which you graduate today,” Dadez continued. “My sincere congratulations to our graduates to their families and friends and faculty and staff for helping to make this celebration possible. We salute you for your accomplishment.”