When Peter James Smith started his college career as a young freshman at Saint Leo College, he got so homesick that he considered moving back to New Jersey.
Little did he know he’d eventually go on to earn his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the institution and would even pursue an online Doctor of Education.
A graduate of Central Regional High School, the 48-year-old native of Seaside Heights, N.J. still resides in his hometown. His two fur babies are a Jack Russell Terrier named Claudia and a cat, Eddie.
Discovering Saint Leo College
It was one visit to the campus in the late 1980s that made him realize right away that Saint Leo College, as it was known back then, would be a great fit for him.
“One of my best friends growing up, Kimberle Rolle, was going there,” he recalls. “She was studying hospitality management and was doing a work/study program with Marriott, which seemed so cool to me. I visited her on campus one time. As soon as I walked into the library, I saw how beautiful it was. Something about the campus just made me feel different. I never really had a firm plan at that time to go to college, but this place struck me in such a positive way.”
Enrolling as an English major, he started as a student at age 20 in January 1992 but immediately began having second thoughts.
“My mother passed away my first semester, and I started getting so homesick,” he says. “I seriously thought about moving back home.”
It was a girl in his English class who he says saved him from leaving.
“First it was my brother who told me I needed to stay. Then I met a girl named Heather Clark (now Heather Clark-Lonero) in one of my English classes. She asked if I’d tutor her in English. I then became very friendly not just with her but with many of her sorority sisters in Theta Phi Alpha, alternatively known at that time as Psi Theta Epsilon. I became best friends with Heather as time progressed and eventually a ‘big brother’ to her sorority. The original incarnation of Theta Phi Alpha was not successful. But later, other women of the campus reconnected with that national and reinstated the Beta Upsilon chapter, and I am so proud that I see it today as a longtime success.”
He fondly remembers Dr. Mary Spoto, an adjunct English instructor at the time who has gone on to become vice president of Academic Affairs.
“Dr. Spoto was an excellent instructor. She helped me for years and even helped me write a book. I’ve always made a point to see her whenever I come back and visit. She was a speaker at my master’s-level graduation, and I was so proud of the both of us for having come such distances.”
He also worked on campus in the Center for Distance Learning in the 1990s.
“Even back then, almost anybody could take classes from Saint Leo. I did some A/V work where I would record some of the classes on VHS tapes and then mail the tapes to military students so they could watch the lectures. That distance learning program was the launch pad of the eventual online degree programs, which led to Saint Leo’s rise to university status and to what we know today.”
He graduated in the spring of 1995 with a Bachelor of Arts in English.
Pursuing Two Online Degree Programs
Embarking on an online master’s degree program some 22 years after attaining his bachelor’s degree from Saint Leo College, Smith began the Master of Education in Instructional Leadership program in January 2017 with what is now Saint Leo University. He completed this online graduate degree in the spring of 2019.
His favorite course in the instructional leadership master’s program was taught by Toni Zetzsche called Leadership for School Change.
“She was so interesting to learn from,” he says. “I remember that she wrote ‘impeccable’ for my last paper in that class. I figured I guess I had the skills and abilities to do well in this program.”
He also had Dr. Melinda Carver, a professor he describes as “the toughest teacher I’ve ever had in my life.” But he says he learned so much from her.
“I called her up on the phone and she spent a lot of time helping me.”
The most intriguing course in the program was on multicultural education and was taught by Georgina Rivera-Singletary.
“This class truly opened my eyes to the plight of diversity in this country and in education,” he says.
Plus, Dr. Alberto Vazquez Matos taught him about dual immersion, a concept where two languages are taught simultaneously in one class.
Smith says online degree programs are not for everyone but can help some people get a better education.
“I think it can be more challenging than taking classes traditionally in a classroom setting because you have to be more on point and on top of things,” he says. “I try to budget my time each week for reading, research, writing, discussion questions and tests. But I liked to be challenged, so this format works well for me.”
He is now pursuing his online Doctor of Education in School Leadership, which is one of three online doctoral programs Saint Leo University currently offers.
A Varied Career
Smith has been a member of the Board of Education in Seaside Heights for 18 years. He previously worked as a special education teacher and says teaching fourth grade was his favorite grade. He also worked for the Borough of Seaside Heights for many years in varying capacities. He is currently on the Board of Trustees for his local historical society. This group is currently working to open a museum that highlights the area’s history, including the complete restoration of a hard-carved, wooden antique Dentzel & Looff carousel from 1910.
“The Saint Leo master’s program has helped me in every aspect of my work on creating this museum,” he confides.
Spreading the Story of Saint Leo
In 2014, Smith took the initiative to launch a website – www.saintleohistory.com. The site is based on a tremendous amount of research he has done on the history of the institution from which he is now working on his third degree.
“I wanted to chronicle this history and make it available to everyone in one place. The school has such a deep and rich history with so many fascinating stories.”
He spent many hours in the Saint Leo library reviewing yearbooks dating back to the 1960s. He also went through the 1989 book Pioneer College, which highlights the first century of the institution’s existence. Plus, he had many conversations with Sr. Dorothy Neuhoefer, a longtime nun of the Benedictine Sisters of Florida who worked in the library.
“Saint Leo has meant so much to me in my life,” Smith says.
Photo credit: The photographs included in this blog article were provided by Peter Smith and are used with permission.