Equipped to Lead and Succeed

After a Long Break, She Graduates

by Mary McInerney, USF News

Thirty years after Lerisa Puckett graduated from Saint Francis High School in Mountain View, she walked into a classroom at USF. The students might have done a double take.

Lerisa Puckett

“What’s this old lady doing? Is she the TA or what?” Puckett said, recalling the scene. No, not a teaching assistant. Puckett was a student. Little did her classmates know, she had attended USF in the mid-1990s, before any of them were born.

This month, Puckett, who is 50, will cross the stage in St. Ignatius Church and receive a BA in politics.

“It’s a long time coming,” Puckett said, her eyes tearing up.

Puckett returned to USF two years ago after leaving in 1994 to raise her family. She reared her three children and sent them all off to college before returning to USF in 2022. Her youngest, son Keyshawn, graduates May 18 from Colorado Mesa University — the day Puckett was supposed to graduate from USF.

USF wasn’t going to let Puckett miss commencement.

“As you can imagine, this was a big challenge for the whole family,” said Elisabeth Jay Friedman, professor of politics. “So, we asked the USF folks in charge of these matters to allow Lerisa a very special and unusual dispensation to graduate the day before our politics grads during the ceremony for undergraduate business majors. That way the family could attend both graduation exercises. They very quickly agreed. Jesuit values in action!”

There have been a lot of supporters through the years, Puckett said. When she decided to leave USF midway through her degree, her grandparents stood by her, even though they were devastated.

“My grandfather didn’t get the opportunity to go to school, so he pushed it for me,” she said. At 91, he is proud of her upcoming commencement, she said.

But it was her late grandmother who was Puckett’s biggest influence. “Just promise me that you’ll finish college,” she kept telling Puckett.

They weren’t the only ones. While Puckett was working as an aide to students with disabilities at her children’s school, the principal told her she didn’t belong there and that she should go back to school.

When she did return to USF, her husband, Stephen, and their children — Sharina, LaShea, and Keyshawn — were her champions. “They would tell me they were so proud of me,” Puckett said. “They would call me after a test and ask how I did.”

So how did it turn out with the students in her politics classes? “I was a little bit nervous, but they have so much to offer in today’s world. These kids have a fire in them, and we learned from each other,” Puckett said.

Friedman said it was a joy and a privilege to have Puckett as a student. “Her great questions, forthright manner, and attentive engagement impressed professors and peers alike," Friedman said. "And we all learned from her life experiences.”

With a refreshed LinkedIn profile, the soon-to-be-graduate is ready to hit the workforce. Puckett is interested in working in the district attorney’s office as an investigator. “I just feel there’s another capacity where I could bring justice to people,” she said. “Whatever it is, I know it will be in service.”

Puckett said there was never any doubt that she would return to USF — and only USF. “I started at USF, and I wanted to finish at USF. Thank God for the opportunity. I know it took many years, but it was worth it.”