From Fighting Fires with the Air Force to Building an Identity for U.S. Olympic Weightlifting

Going to school while serving in the Air Force can seem difficult. But as Xavier Leal, a former firefighter in the U.S. Air Force, shares his story, it becomes clear that serving in the U.S. Military has helped shape him into the successful student he is today in UF Online: one who can overcome hardships and strive for more with discipline, planning, and leadership.

“My experience was challenging, but it was also rewarding. The Air Force prepared me to remain disciplined in anything and everything I do, whether it’s making your bed or certain training exercises,” Xavier said. “This allowed me to be disciplined in my studies. Serving for eight years taught me how to lead, make quick decisions, and work as a team. These are some of the intangibles that are definitely needed to be successful in school as well as in the workforce.”

Attending University to Prepare for Civilian Life

As Xavier began to plan for his life after service, finding his passion proved to be difficult. He’d started on the college journey multiple times, but it never seemed to stick.

“Unfortunately, I’d been in and out of college for years. I had no idea what kind of career path I wanted to take. I jumped around different majors, but they were never a good fit. Then I just realized, during my free time I was always around sports and I was involved in every facet of them already. It was a no-brainer; I’d finally realized my passion.”

With this passion in mind, Xavier needed a Sport Management program that would help him achieve his goals without hampering his current life. After all, he was still serving in the military at this time, so he couldn’t exactly drop everything to become a full-time college student . Thankfully, he found that an online education at the University of Florida was the perfect fit for what he needed.

“UF Online allowed me the flexibility to continue to serve in the Air Force while simultaneously pursuing my education. That was a big thing for me at the start of my college career.”

Overcoming Obstacles and Planning for Success

Xavier’s route to his bachelor’s wasn’t a smooth one. As he entered his graduation year, a global pandemic caused many schools to shut down. While UF Online’s courses weren’t affected, seniors in the Sport Management Program had a unique problem. “For Sport Management majors, our last semester is a full-time internship. Obviously, we couldn’t do that because sports had basically been shut down.”

Even with these complications, Xavier stayed the course and began to discuss his options with UF faculty to make sure he graduated on time. “I was emailing Dr. DeMichele, the Sport Management Internship Coordinator, constantly because I had to graduate on time for my graduate program. We discussed all these different scenarios, and in the end, the program decided on offering additional coursework to the students.”

This wasn’t the first time that Xavier had worked directly with UF Online’s faculty and staff. In fact, Xavier had special praise to his academic advisor, Paul Higgerson. “[Paul] was so engaging, and we already had a kind of rapport because Paul also served in the Air Force.” Xavier went on to say that “it was easy to go to him with questions, and along with my professors, they made it easy and seamless to do online education. It made me want to work even harder because they were doing so much to support me.”

Finding the Flexibility to Gain Hands-on Experience

One of the things that often comes up in student stories is the benefit of the flexibility that comes with an online education, and for Xavier it was no different . “Even before I graduated, I already had six different experiences in the sports industry,” Xavier said. “A lot of people can’t do that, but that is another thing about UF Online: the flexibility allowed me to do that. I could intern all over as opposed to being limited to just Gainesville.

Those internships helped Xavier find hands-on training and have once-in-a-lifetime experiences. One such experience was his internship with USA Weightlifting. “It was great! I was a marketing and events intern, and my supervisor was phenomenal. She’d give me tasks and let me run with them,” Xavier added. “I created this one marketing campaign for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to give the weightlifting community and branded an identity about who we are. It’s been postponed until next year, but I am hoping they still use it,” he said.

Celebrating a Milestone for the Entire Family

Xavier wasn’t alone on his journey through higher education. He had the support of an encouraging family and a fiancée to keep him company during the difficult times. When it came time to celebrate his graduation, Xavier admitted that it had never felt like a big thing for him, but his loved ones were quick to set him straight on that.

“My fiancée reminded me that l was the first of my family to graduate. She pushed me to remember that my parents would love it,” Xavier said. “This wasn’t a big thing to me, but everyone in my family is telling me how big of a deal it is. They told me it wasn’t just for me; it was for my whole family. For my young nieces and nephews to see my hard work and all I’ve accomplished.”

While Xavier won’t be walking for his first graduation, he’s looking forward to the next one, where he’ll be able to celebrate with all of his family in person.

The Road Ahead for Xavier

In his next chapter, Xavier is heading to graduate school in Denver, CO, where he’ll continue his education and specialize in marketing. While Xavier isn’t certain what lies ahead, he has his eyes set on a very specific prize, “The dream job would be working for the Dallas Cowboys.”

Wherever Xavier may go next, we’re looking forward to seeing him succeed. Join us in celebrating a fellow member of the Gator Nation!

Join the Gator Nation with our Sport Management Program

The UF Online Bachelor of Science in Sport Management program equips students with the tools to apply the fundamental concepts of management, marketing, finance, and law to sports organizations. Students go on to pursue careers in a variety of organizations like professional sport franchises, intercollegiate athletics, sports media, municipal recreation, sports committees, private organizations, social organizations, and amateur sports. Within these organizations, students get involved in a range of job functions such as facility and event management, marketing, administration, compliance, ticket operations, sponsorship sales, fundraising and player representation.

To learn more about the UF Online Sport Management program, visit our sport management degree page.