By catering to students who learn differently, Beacon College helped Ryan ‘Blow away expectations’


Ryan graduated from Beacon College as one of five valedictorians.

LEESBURG – Ryan Sleboda is a college graduate with a degree in anthrozoology, a 4.0 GPA, and the distinction of being one of five valedictorians for Beacon College’s Class of 2024.

He’s sailing off to a future where he expects to own a business – a doggy daycare – and live on his own.

“That’s my motivation,” he said.

These are significant milestones for Ryan, who is on the autism spectrum.

Socially shy for most of his life, Ryan, 23, has cleared hurdle after hurdle thanks in part to the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities, managed by Step Up For Students. It enabled him to attend a private school that set him on his journey of success.

He graduated from Pace Brantley Preparatory School in 2020 as valedictorian and senior class president.

“One door opened to another door every time,” his mother, Susan said, “and it all started with that initial door, getting that scholarship.”


There was a time when the idea of Ryan attending college and living on campus was a concept his mother didn’t even dare to dream.

“We set our expectations low, honestly,” Susan said. “For a time, we thought Ryan would always live with us. But he’s come so far, and this college has been amazing for him.

Family support played a great role in Ryan’s success.

“Now, we’re seeing a student who’s graduated, who is not just further ahead than we had hoped but has blown away our expectations. He wants to own his own business. He wants to be an entrepreneur. What’s better than that? He has truly exceeded our expectations.”

Beacon College is a four-year college in Leesburg. It was founded in 1989 for students with learning differences such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, and dyslexia.

Its small student body (455 undergraduates) allows for a teacher-student ratio of no more than 1 to 15 and creates a more nurturing learning environment. Its dorm rooms allow students to build the self-confidence that comes with living away from home while attending college.

“There are a number of things we want for our students, and one of them is to be independent, so when they leave, they can be self-sufficient,” said Beacon College Provost Dr. Shelly Chandler. “Of course, we want them to be educated. We want them to be lifelong learners. But the main thing is we want them to find meaningful work and live a fulfilling life.”


Two members of Beacon College campus security paused their conversation to greet Ryan as he walked past them on a sunny midweek morning. A trio of coeds did the same as they passed by.

From across the street, a classmate shouted, “Hey, Ryan!”

“If he were an athlete, he’d be an MVP,” said Bryan Cushing, a Beacon College professor who has taught Ryan since his freshman year.

Ryan returned each greeting with a cheery “Hello.”

“Attending Beacon College has made me an extrovert,” Ryan said.

“That’s very true,” Susan said. “He used to be quiet. And I don’t want to say afraid, but shy and timid. It was hard for him to make friends. He was afraid of making mistakes. Beacon College has truly turned him into a leader.”

Ryan excelled at Pace Brantley, but that was a familiar, comfortable setting. College would be different. There would be new teachers and classmates. Ryan would have a roommate.

Like his older brothers, Matthew (Florida Atlantic University) and Jason (Florida State University), Ryan wanted to go away to college. He wanted that independence. He researched the universities in Florida but couldn’t find one that would fit his needs.

“They just don’t have those best services provided for those with special needs,” Ryan said. “With me, I can’t handle being in a big crowd as much because that’s where my anxiety rises so much that I can’t focus. And that’s where my autism starts to overstimulate really crazy, even when it’s in a school setting.”

Ryan learned of Beacon College when school president Dr. George J. Hagerty visited Pace Brantley during Ryan’s junior year. The school, located an hour from Sleboda’s home in Sanford, offers anthrozoology as one of its majors, and that appealed to Ryan’s love of animals.

The school also offered a three-week program called Summer for Success, where high school freshmen, sophomores and juniors live on campus and receive the full college experience.

Susan and her husband, Bill, didn’t know what to expect when they dropped Ryan off in Leesburg that summer. They were surprised at what they found when they returned three weeks later.

“Honestly,” Susan said, “I couldn’t believe he was the same person. He entered that Summer of Success program as a young boy, and when we picked him up, he was a young man.”

Ryan walked and talked with a self-confidence they had never seen in him. He was ready to go away to college.

“That’s what a lot of families experience,” Chandler said. “And when they come in the first semester, boy, do we see growth. By the time they graduate, they’re different people. They really are.”


Ryan’s four years at Beacon College weren’t all seashells and balloons. He learned roommates can be challenging. Keeping track of his class schedule and coursework took some getting used to. As did living away from home.

“I have to admit,” he said, “I was homesick at first.”

But he slowly escaped the cocoon he’d built around himself and began meeting daily challenges.

“He took a lot of risks on his own socially and academically to build that confidence,” Cushing said.

Ryan became a leader in the college’s orientation program and gravitated toward new students, eager to show them around and answer their questions.

As a junior, he traveled to Costa Rica to study the local ecology. He interned at a doggy daycare near his home before his senior year. That’s where he developed the idea of owning his own business.

Through all of it, the straight-A student in high school continued to earn top grades.

Cushing said watching Ryan develop during these past four years is why he teaches at Beacon College.

“So many other people would see our students and just dismiss them off the bat, and that’s not fair because they all have an equal right to education, and they deserve to get this education and the experiences that come with going to college, the social stuff, the personal growth,” he said. “And if we can provide that, and they take advantage of it, it’s really a beautiful thing.”


Avatar photo

BY Roger Mooney

Roger Mooney is the marketing communications manager for Step Up For Students. He joined the organization after a career as a sports and features writer for several Florida newspapers, including the Tampa Tribune and Tampa Bay Times.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *