Saint Leo University awarded more than 1,100 degrees during three commencement ceremonies Friday, April 27, and Saturday, April 28, at University Campus, which is north of Tampa. The graduating seniors, their families, and friends also heard from three prestigious guest speakers in addition to outstanding student speakers.

Saint Leo hosts 13 commencement ceremonies throughout the United States with the first three being held at the Marion Bowman Activities Center at University Campus. Commencement ceremonies will continue for Saint Leo WorldWide and the university's education centers through July 7.

Former Florida Governor Robert "Bob" Martinez addressed the undergraduates during an afternoon ceremony today Saturday, April 28. Martinez served as the state's 40th governor from 1987 through 1990. He was the mayor of Tampa, FL, from 1979 to 1996.  He now serves as a senior policy advisor to Holland & Knight LLP and is a political analyst for Bay News 9.

The Tampa native urged graduates to put their knowledge to use and strive for new goals whatever the obstacles. "My advice, young people: Don't accept barriers," Martinez said. "You can't lose unless you don't try."

He told the graduates not to forget where they got their start, at Saint Leo. And, he offered advice as they enter the workforce. "As you move into employment, don't forget that there's more than work."

Martinez encouraged them to be involved in their communities and nonprofit organizations as well as to give back to their alma mater.

"Somewhere out there is a mayor," he said, surveying the graduates. "Somewhere out there is a governor. Somewhere out there is a drug czar. Somewhere out there is a president. We don't know who it is yet. But you're out there."

Cassidy Whitaker of Brandon, FL, who earned a Bachelor of Arts in political science, was selected to address her classmates. Her peers are mostly traditional-age college students who earned degrees at University Campus. She reflected on her own journey from a young student who was homesick during her first year to a more enterprising young person who found interesting groups to join, new friends to connect with, and valued intellectual guidance from her faculty and mentors. "Opportunity is here," she said.

Whitaker cited a phrase used by Martin Luther King. Jr. and former President Barack Obama: "The fierce urgency of now," as her encouragement to look to the future.

On Saturday morning, more than 400 students earned master's degrees and two students received their Doctor of Business Administration degrees. Earning DBAs were Stephen B. Kubasek and George J. Simonof.

MaryEllen Elia, New York State commissioner of education and president of the University of the State of New York (USNY), spoke to those earning graduate degrees in a morning ceremony on Saturday. Prior to her appointment as commissioner July 2015, Elia served as superintendent of schools in Hillsborough County, FL (Tampa-area) for 10 years.

Elia asked the Class of 2018 to think about what they would like to say to the Saint Leo Class of 2028. "You've had a great foundation here at Saint Leo," she said. "And you all have two things in common. You have purpose, and you have perseverance."

She offered three pieces of advice. "First, take advantage of opportunities that interest you," Elia said. She said they may not have a second chance and should try things outside of their comfort zones.

"Second, get involved," she said. "Get involved in activities in your community. Finally, always keep an open mind."

Elia said if the graduates do those three things, "you will find your intersection of success and happiness."

Selected as the student speaker for the graduate programs commencement was student-athlete Niclas Bez, who earned a Master of Business Administration degree. Bez, a native of Bonn, Germany, also ran men's track for the Lions.

When his desire to be a professional athlete in his native country was quashed, he turned to his Plan B. Saint Leo welcomed him. "This institution made it possible for me," Bez said, to earn his bachelor's and master's degrees.

Bez compared the journey to an MBA to his 1500-meter runs in track. At the beginning of the race, one is overwhelmed. "The great thing is that you are not by yourself. Just like having your coaches and friends encouraging you from the side of the track, you have your professors on the sidelines during your graduate degrees," he told his classmates.

"So whatever your next 1500-meter run, your next graduate degree, your next challenge in life is, you've got this!"

Saint Leo alumnus and former Florida legislator Edwin Narain, gave the commencement address for Friday's Saint Leo WorldWide  graduation ceremony for the university's nontraditional and online students. About 330 students received their degrees in Friday night's ceremony. Narain is regional director of external affairs for AT&T, a member of the university's board of trustees, and a former state legislator.  

Narain earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology and a Master of Business Administration degree from Saint Leo University. In 2013, he completed a leadership certificate and earned a Juris Doctor degree from Stetson University College of Law.

He told the graduates that some of their dreams may be too small. "This is the beginning of a new dream," Narain said about graduating. "Use your education to make an impact on the world. You have to challenge and enlarge your dreams so that you help others in your life."

Narain acknowledged the challenges the students overcame to earn their degrees. "Some of you were told you were too old, you were too busy, or you weren't smart enough," he said to the nontraditional graduates. "But there was someone there to push you."

He challenged the graduates, "What will you do in the service of others? Right now the world needs a Saint Leo grad."

Selected to speak to her fellow Saint Leo WorldWide students was Quinisha Abrahams, of Jacksonville, FL, an active duty U.S. Navy chief petty officer.  Abrahams earned her Associate of Arts degree in 2013, and in 2015 she resumed her educational journey with Saint Leo University. On Friday, she graduated with her Bachelor of Science degree in health care management. Abrahams will continue her education and pursue a Master of Business Administration degree. While continuing her naval service, she will use her degree to be commissioned as a Medical Service Corps officer.

"Getting a degree by any means or medium, at any age, is no easy task," Adams said to her peers. "But we did. Because our own personal development matters, not only to ourselves but it will impact those around us as well."

Adams gave special thanks to her children, Demarcus and Makalyn, her mother Velda, and her "brothers and sisters in arms—Hooyah! Navy!"

Saint Leo University and Saint Leo University Alumni will continue to post photos in the coming days on their social media platforms.