Saint Leo University has always embraced students who started college elsewhere and need a new home institution that will evaluate their previous academic credits and welcome them to online or classroom-led courses so they can attain a goal. Often, these students are working adults seeking affordable college degrees.

But families with traditional-age undergraduates, from about 18 to 24 years old, can employ some of the same strategies at Saint Leo as well. Not all young people need to go straight from high school to a residential college for four continuous years.

The Girards  of Rhode Island offer a prime example of a family that planned well for an affordable college experience. Twins Kaisha and Erika Girard, now 23, are flourishing as seniors. They came to University Campus in Fall 2018 as transfer students with associate degrees, additional certificates, well-regarded internship experience, and even some Saint Leo credits earned online.

By the end of the Fall 2019 semester, they will have completed the inventive course of study they each wanted and will have also fulfilled their shared hope of living and studying at a Catholic institution. As of now, they anticipate graduating with no student loan debt, a benefit of their careful research into affordable colleges. Erika spoke for both of them when she said their experience in demonstrates that young people do not necessarily need to incur incredible debt loads to "make their dreams come true."

Habit of good planning extends back to home schooling days

Parents Michael and Lisa Girard started considering different educational options for their twin daughters when the girls were in middle school, after seven years of public school. Earlier, Lisa had handled the kindergarten year through home schooling. 

Their mother began home schooling the girls again at the beginning of eighth grade, employing a widely used, computer-based Christian curriculum (Switched-On Schoolhouse by Alpha Omega Publications). The girls were already voracious readers and they adjusted well to the new program. "We loved it," Kaisha said.

Other aspects of their teen years were enjoyable, too. They were involved in their local parish and delighted in spending time with their grandparents and other family members nearby. As loyal Disney enthusiasts, the parents and daughters took multiple trips to the Florida attraction growing up. During a trip when the twins were around 16, Disney Cast Members (the official title the Walt Disney Company uses for all of its employees) started mentioning to the girls that Disney has a program that accepts college students as employees while simultaneously giving them college credit. The realization that this was "a career possibility" stayed with them.

From home schooling to a high school diploma

Back home, as much as the twins enjoyed their curriculum, the family discovered that continuing home schooling for their senior year would not allow the girls to meet school district requirements for a standard high school diploma. They opted for their local Community College of Rhode Island's High School Enrichment Program and were approved to participate on a full-time basis. This arrangement essentially enabled them to attend college for their senior year of high school. By commuting to classes at the multi-campus college, the girls satisfied the diploma requirements. They were enrolled in college classes, the same as any other student, and their family supported them financially with funds for tuition and books. Their mother even drove them to and from classes every day.

After high school graduation, Erika and Kaisha continued on into the associate degree program in general studies at the community college. They earned their two-year degrees in 2016.  They took their studies seriously and disagree with a critique they have often heard: that community college is too easy. Kaisha said they were challenged by the assignments but also added, "We're perfectionists. We don't want to do anything halfway." They earned highest honors when they graduated with associate degrees and were inducted into Phi Theta Kappa, an honor society for community college students.

Along the way, they researched the Disney College Program they had heard about and ultimately applied for a Florida placement. While they were still focused on the four-year degree their parents had prepared them for, both were excited about the program. It offers paid internship work at a Disney location, job-training and career-preparation classes, and company housing for participants from all over the world. Acceptance into the program is competitive, and the twins learned that employers view an internship with Disney favorably because of the company's focus on guest satisfaction and a strong work ethic.

The twins wanted to pursue the Disney College Program so much that they opted for extra courses in two career areas—lodging management and travel management—offered at the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI). They reasoned that the additional studies might make them stronger applicants for the Disney College Program (in addition to qualifying each of them for two hospitality certificates from CCRI). It worked.

They were both accepted to operate attractions at Disney World near Orlando from August 2016 to May 2017, sharing housing. Kaisha was placed at Toy Story Mania in Disney's Hollywood Studios, while Erika spieled at Enchanted Tales with Belle and was cross-trained at the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train in Magic Kingdom. Although the work shifts could be exhausting, they said, the experience was worthwhile and one they would like to repeat. They remember how happy they were when they were interacting with families and making small children smile. Some guests even saw both twins on different days and thought they were the same person. "Guests' reactions were amazing," Kaisha said.

After their internship experiences, they were ready to dive into their upper-level degree studies. 

Selecting the right university

The twins had specific criteria in selecting a transfer destination. They both describe their faith as being an "incredibly important" factor in their lives, and they saw their upcoming transfer as an opportunity to make a Catholic institution their home for a while. The other consideration: the school had to offer both English, which they decided would be their major, and a hospitality studies program so they could build on what they had learned in Rhode Island and at Disney.

Their research indicated that Saint Leo best satisfied these criteria, even though it is farther from home than the one-hour-or-less driving distance they had always envisioned; it is a three-hour flight instead. Tuition was more affordable than other schools they researched, though, and their fine performance at community college made them eligible for merit scholarships. They made a campus visit during some downtime in 2017. "We could see a future here," Erika recalled.

Online courses provided several benefits

Their timeline to start studying on campus was the Fall 2018 semester. But before then, they wanted to fill in two course gaps in the required liberal arts core and fulfill two requirements of the English major. Doing so would make their fall schedules much smoother and allow them to maximize their resources, particularly their time and finances.

The twins found they could earn several necessary credits from home during the Spring I and Summer I 2018 semesters by enrolling in four courses, the maximum two at a time, from Saint Leo's undergraduate online offerings. First, they selected a required academic writing course and a class on foundational Christian texts. Then during the summer semester, they dove into an elective course on African-American literature and completed the first segment of a broader two-semester study of American literature. "It was a good transition," Erika said. They became familiar with the Saint Leo teaching style, expectations for discussion and participation, and some of the professors they would later meet and study with on campus.

Their mom, Lisa, meanwhile, started becoming adept at finding bargains when shopping for airline tickets.

When they arrived on campus for orientation, the twins were still concerned that they might feel homesick. Then they saw the display for University Ministry, with its information on the campus chaplain, Mass schedule, and social and fellowship activities, and were greeted by peer ministers at the table. "We felt at home immediately," they agreed.

Thriving at residential campus

The twins have been able to remain roommates on campus, for which they are thankful. They split tasks such as laundry and scheduling, act as study partners to one another, and keep in touch with their family members through shared video calls. They also enjoy campus life and the ministry, just as they had anticipated.

Majoring in English with a concentration in Advanced Literary Study, they said, has introduced them to new worlds of literature (the reading lists are long) and has improved their writing. Dr. Elisabeth Aiken has taught the young women in two American literature courses and credits them with being "engaged, curious, determined, and enthusiastic. While at times they seem to share a brain and finish one another's sentences, Erika and Kaisha bring their individual strengths to their studies and each is a valued member of their cohort in the English major."

They have also been able to participate in group activities, such as a regional academic conference for English majors from colleges around the country and literary events on campus sponsored by the department and the College of Arts and Sciences. In their endeavors, Aiken said, the two strongly demonstrate three of the university's core values: "community, excellence, and respect—-respect for their professors, their coursework, and their peers."

They enjoy their major so much, the twins said, that they are considering careers in editing.

Still, they have built upon their knowledge of the hospitality industry as well. They participate in student-level industry events on campus and intend to graduate with a minor in hospitality management offered through the university's Tapia College of Business. (This department also offers a major in international hospitality, events, and hotel management or sport business, as well as an alternative minor in sport hospitality.) The Girards' previous certificate coursework from Rhode Island gave them enough subject credits to make the minor from Saint Leo attainable.

The first-hand experiences the two have brought into Saint Leo classrooms from their Disney College Program placements have also been useful for their classmates to hear, said Dr. Judith Holcomb, associate professor of hospitality management. Holcomb recalled that the twins individually shared stories from their Disney employment during discussion periods in her course on guest service management. "They were very genuine in their empathy toward guests and willingness to serve guests," Holcomb recounted. It made an impression on the professor because, as she pointed out, employers appreciate that characteristic in new hires and employees.

Another highlight from the Saint Leo hospitality program for Kaisha and Erika was a semester-long group project for an event management class they took during the Spring 2019 semester. With a third partner, the twins created and presented their plan for a family-friendly Saint Patrick's Day event for campus and all three students enjoyed "sharing their vision" during the oral presentation.

The twins will complete the balance of their academic work in the Fall 2019 semester and are starting to think about their plans after that. They hope to pursue a second internship at Disney by entering the Disney College Program again to broaden their experience. That is a viable option that many previous program participants pursue, Holcomb commented, and can lead to further opportunities inside Disney.

As far as the future is concerned, Erika and Kaisha are excited to embark on any adventure—including Disney, graduate school, and careers—as long as they can do it together. They have only one semester left at Saint Leo, they are determined to make the most of it and to inspire others to chase their own dreams. They like to quote Walt Disney himself on this point, saying, "All our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them."