Past the tall pillars off State Road 52, amid the Spanish-style stucco buildings and the oak foliage, a group of pajama-clad young women bustle across campus. Young men in jerseys stroll by carrying lacrosse sticks, while in nearby classrooms, professors at Florida's oldest Catholic university lecture with state-of-the-art technology.
Tucked into the pastoral hills of east Pasco, Saint Leo University is "somewhere anyone could love," junior Will Johansen said.
But don't be fooled by the serene surroundings. The rural campus is booming — just look at the construction of the new School of Business building and a pair of new dorms. Enrollment has exploded over the past decade to more than 15,000, fueled by satellite locations and online programs that prove the convenience of distance learning can be just as enticing as an 185-acre lakeside campus.
Nearly 1,000 graduates and their families flocked to Saint Leo this weekend for commencement exercises, capping off a year of record-high enrollment. With the university seeing a soaring number of freshman applications — and with construction under way to accommodate a larger student body — officials expect those numbers to keep going up.
"Our programs are cutting-edge and growing," said Stephen Baglione, professor of marketing and quantitative methods.
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History professor Douglas Astolfi said Saint Leo was a much different place not long ago.
"Fourteen years ago, (it) was a sleepy little college in Pasco County that enrolled fewer than 800, mostly Florida, students," said Astolfi, a former vice president for academic affairs. "The school might best have been described in those days as open enrollment and insignificant."
The college was founded in 1889 and opened the next fall with 32 students who took a mix of commercial and liberal arts courses. In 1920, the mission changed to a college preparatory school, and that lasted nearly four decades. Then in 1959, with help from the Benedictine Sisters at the neighboring Holy Name Monastery, Saint Leo began offering college courses toward an associate's degree. By 1967, students could earn a bachelor's. In the 1970s the college expanded to provide degree programs on military bases.
Still, main campus enrollment numbered in the hundreds.
Then Arthur F. Kirk Jr., took the reins as college president in 1997, and within two years Saint Leo became a university. Kirk created the online learning program, boosted the academic offerings and added eight intercollegiate athletic teams. He invested in technology and issued laptop computers to all students residing on campus.
Today Saint Leo has nearly 2,000 full-time students at its east Pasco campus, plus more than 13,000 off-campus and online students. The university has satellite learning centers in other parts of Florida and California, Virginia, Texas, South Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi — mostly at military bases and community colleges — where adults can take evening or weekend classes, or access distance learning courses.
Not surprisingly, many of the out-of-state students are members of the U.S. military. Last year, G.I. Jobs magazine named the university a "Military-Friendly School." And Saint Leo — which in its earliest days incorporated military-style uniforms, drills and discipline for its young students — now ranks 12th among the most popular schools for active-duty military using military tuition assistance, according to Military Times magazine.
University officials say the growth hasn't diluted the academic standards. The typical Saint Leo student earned a 1530 combined score on the SAT or a 22 on the ACT. But the flexibility offered by online and satellite learning programs has put a college education within reach for more people.
Diverse Education, a Web-based ranking service that monitors diversity issues in higher education, ranks Saint Leo among the top universities in the country for educating diverse populations. Saint Leo is ranked No. 8 for the numbers of African-American students in its business and computer science programs, and No. 21 for blacks in its MBA program.
The traditional campus also recruits students like Leondra Foster, who grew up in the tiny, impoverished town of Pittman, an hour's drive southeast of Ocala. On Saturday she was the first member of her family to graduate from college, thanks to the federal Upward Bound program and the folks at Saint Leo.
"A couple of people here saw some really good potential in me," said Foster, a communications major who has been active in the Student Government Union and Sisters Incorporated, a service organization for women. "They didn't make it seem like college was so out of reach; they bridged the gap."
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Crews broke ground last spring on the 50,000-square-foot building that will house the School of Business. A $4 million donation toward the $11 million project came from Donald Tapia, the owner of an electrical wholesale company who earned his bachelor's degree, and later his master's in business administration, from Saint Leo online.
"It's a real pearl there on the banks of that little lake," said the Arizona entrepreneur, who first saw the campus in 2005 when he arrived to collect his first degree.
With the building comes programs for undergraduate majors such as education, psychology, sports business and theology. The building will enhance graduate programs in the same fields, as well as instructional technology, social work, criminal justice and crisis management.
The university also broke ground Friday on two new residence halls that will house about 324 additional students when they open in August 2012. The campus boasts a new softball field and state-of-the-art batting cage area. A parking deck is in the works, to be placed under the soccer field next to the gymnasium. Older buildings will be renovated and a guard gate will go up at the front entrance.
All the infrastructure underscores the university's commitment to the students, and the growing popularity of its programs, officials say.
"As one parent of a recent grad said to me . . . this is a remarkable place because everyone here seems to agree that teaching and learning are of paramount importance, and the faculty and staff all seem committed to helping every student succeed," Astolfi said.
Even the ones who never set foot on this campus.