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UNF grad begins a new journey across the country

UNF student Talon LeonardTalon Leonard’s devotion to public service stems from his family’s military background, making it a natural fit for Leonard to serve his country. He even served in Naval Junior ROTC during high school.
“I was passionate about wanting to do something greater than myself,” said Leonard. “I wanted to serve the country and serve different communities.”
As he graduates from the University of North Florida this spring with dual degrees in political science and international studies, he then travels to Sacramento, California, in June to begin a rigorous month of training for his role as a team leader in the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) Forest Service Corps program — a new partnership between AmeriCorps NCCC and the U.S. Forest Service.
The new, team-based community service program is open to young people ages 18 to 26, looking to provide hands-on service to protect public lands by conducting wildlife surveys, prescribed burns, trail maintenance services and similar tasks.
“I love the outdoors and I want to be able to do what I can to help protect the environment,” he said.
Discovering his own path
Growing up as a military kid, Leonard said moving frequently and experiencing life in different locations around the world — including Morocco and Jordan — made for an exciting learning experience. During his teenage years, he lived in Northern Virginia, then moved to Tampa his senior year of high school.
Throughout high school, he found an outlet by participating in numerous sports, including football and track and field. Then, he was introduced to rugby — his favorite sport.
Looking to further his education and his pursuit of a military career, he attended Virginia Tech in the fall of 2020, joining the school’s Corps of Cadets program. During his first semester of college, he realized that the military route was no longer the direction he wanted to follow.
He enrolled in UNF in spring 2021.
“I wanted to have new experiences and I read a lot about UNF,” said Leonard. “Ultimately, I felt like UNF was a unique place because of its tight-knit community that was different from the other Florida schools that I toured or read about, and that’s what led me to enroll.”
Academics, sports and volunteering
Although he declared political science as his major at his previous school, Leonard began his UNF journey as an exercise science major, intending to become a physical therapist. After some time, he changed his major to history. While he is passionate about history, he realized in time his heart was pulling him toward a political science degree.
“I have always been passionate about learning about the way that the world functions and how systems are structured,” Leonard said.
Considering his love for traveling and experiencing different cultures, he chose to double major in political science and international studies, and to complement these majors, he chose to minor in Spanish.
“The Spanish program at UNF does a great job of honoring culture and developing students’ Spanish-speaking skills,” Leonard said.
In the summer of 2023, he studied abroad at the Universidad de Burgos in Spain learning about Spanish culture and traditions — an experience he says was most enjoyable. He credits Dr. Nuria Ibanez, professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures, for her assistance in helping him in his Spanish language journey.
Dr. Ibanez praises Leonard for being an active participant in his learning process.
“Teaching Talon both here at UNF and in Spain was a delight,” Ibanez said. “I was thrilled to witness how his language skills developed.” 
Leonard admits pursuing a double major while working part-time was challenging. He discovered that managing his time properly helped him achieve success in the classroom.
He found solace from the rigors of college life as an active member of the UNF Deadbird Rugby Club — holding several officer positions including philanthropy chair.
In addition to the Rugby Club, Leonard also volunteered with the UNF English Language Program during his senior year as a language tutor helping international students develop English language speaking skills.
Discovering the Peace Corps Prep Program at UNF
While at UNF, Leonard looked for public service opportunities. With interest in the Peace Corps, a U.S. government program that trains and deploys volunteers to aid developing countries, he became interested in discovering that the UNF International Center offers a Peace Corps Prep Program (PC Prep).
As a participant in the PC Prep Program, he joined the youth development sector and participated in numerous community service projects on and off campus including serving as a youth counselor at a camp in Maine during the summer of 2021 and 2022. He says time in the program was everything he hoped it would be, and he is thankful for the mentorship provided by his PC Prep Program advisor, Payton Bellis, who has since transitioned to an academic advisor position in the UNF College of Arts and Sciences.
Bellis says Leonard’s curiosity about other cultures and countries, and the impactful ways he interacts with others made him an ideal fit for the PC Prep Program.
“I could tell Talon was passionate about the Peace Corps from the first time I met him,” Bellis said.
He has since completed the PC Prep Program and earned his Peace Corps Prep certificate.
Starting a new chapter with AmeriCorps NCCC
Although Leonard initially planned to join the Peace Corps immediately following his college graduation, he learned of an opportunity with AmeriCorps NCCC that he couldn’t resist. The organization created the new Forest Service Corps program, which begins this summer. As a team leader in the new program, he will serve one year helping with wildfire prevention, trail maintenance and other forestry-related projects throughout the Pacific Coast and Rocky Mountain states. Following his tenure in AmeriCorps NCCC, he plans to join the Peace Corps.
While Leonard admits that it is bittersweet to leave the UNF campus behind, he is excited to start this new chapter of his life.
He says that he is grateful for all the support and opportunities he has received as a member of the UNF community.
“UNF offers so many opportunities for students to figure out exactly what they are passionate about,” said Leonard. “I feel fortunate to have taken advantage of many of those opportunities at UNF.”