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Accepting Academic Challenges to Reach Graduation


GAINESVILLE, Fla. –  College was never a thought in Leigh Ann Skurupey’s mind as a high school student. Now, she’ll be graduating this week with a doctorate in animal sciences.

The University of Florida College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) graduate student began her higher education journey in an effort to change people’s minds about her abilities. Skurupey has dyslexia, a learning disability that makes learning to read and interpret words, letters or symbols difficult. School has always been harder for her as she works daily to overcome her reading challenges.

Skurupey joined 458 UF/CALS students who graduated at 4 p.m. on Dec. 16, and 10 a.m. on Saturday in the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.

As a high school student, Skurupey overheard her mother telling her younger brother he needed to work on improving his grades. Skurupey’s brother asked why their mother didn’t scold her for lower grades, to which their mother replied, “she’s just not quite smart enough.”

“Once I heard her say that, it was my only reason why I went to school – to prove her wrong,” Skurupey said.

Skurupey said her family is supportive of her education goals. Several years after she graduated from Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, Colorado with a 4.0 grade point average, Skurupey shared with her mother how being treated differently became her motivation.

“She hadn’t realized I overheard that conversation years ago,” said Skurupey. “She had wondered what sparked my drive for higher education. She fully understood my desire to go to college after hearing that.”

Scholarships have completely paid for Skurupey’s education, due to her academic success and pursuit of unique funding opportunities. She even earned a scholarship for stamp collecting, a past hobby of hers. The scholarships continued to motivate her to do well in school. She transferred to Colorado State University and graduated with bachelor’s degrees in equine sciences and animal sciences.

A UF College Career

The opportunity to work toward a master’s degree in animal sciences presented itself to Skurupey in the form of an assistantship working as the coach for UF’s horse judging team. UF/IFAS associate professor and state Extension equine specialist Saundra TenBroeck identified her as an outstanding member of Colorado State University’s top ranked horse judging team, precisely when UF was looking for a coach of their own.

“Leigh Ann is driven; she’s not someone who settles for mediocrity from herself or her team members,” TenBroeck said. “The desire to better herself is very present. She is truly competitive, and a person of compassion. Whatever she puts her hand to, she does her very best at it. Her desire to excel is contagious.”

Skurupey continued as coach of the UF horse judging team when she began her Ph.D. in animal sciences. Under the direction of Lori Warren, a UF/IFAS equine nutritionist, Skurupey’s dissertation took an environmental approach to the equine industry. She experimented with different calcium quantities and sources in horse feed to reduce phosphorous amounts released into the environment.

TenBroeck said Skurupey is deeply invested in the UF horse judging team. Just this year, the UF horse judging team placed third in the world under Skurupey’s guidance. But Skurupey is even more devoted to the students who are a part of the horse judging team.

“[Leigh Ann] is a person who pays attention to the detail that makes memories tangible and that much more special,” TenBroeck said. “She’s so generous with her time, talents and finances.”

In addition to her assistantship responsibilities, Skurupey has become heavily involved in various opportunities CALS and UF/IFAS Extension provide. Among other things, she has volunteered for horse clinics with 4-H and National FFA, horsemanship school, Southern region horse championships, eastern national 4-H round-up and IFAS Extension programs in Alachua County. TenBroeck estimates Skurupey has impacted hundreds of students of all ages.

Reflections from an Academic 

When looking back on her college career, Skurupey said she’s thankful for the hands-on aspect of her CALS education. She advises undergraduates to gain experience through research opportunities in their field.

“As graduate students we are always looking for extra hands!” Skurupey said. “Professors are very open to help, and they want students to succeed and develop interests in their fields of study. They are very encouraging. Don’t be afraid to talk with professors.”

She said learning from peers and colleagues in other fields and specializations has contributed tremendously to her education. Since there are so many connections between animals and their environments, Skurupey enjoyed working with others in the soil and water sciences department. Experiences working with other students’ projects helped expand her breadth of knowledge.

Skurupey’s dream is to stay in academia and continue to coach an equine horse judging team.

“One of the hardest things about being in academia is teaching such wonderful students and seeing them leave,” TenBroeck said. “It’s hard. I know they have their lives to live and move on in their careers. So, it’s hard for me to see [Leigh Ann] graduate, but I’m excited for what her future has in store.”

Visit the CALS Facebook page for more stories of students graduating in December.


The College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) administers the degree programs of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS). The mission of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences is to deliver unsurpassed educational programs that prepare students to address the world’s critical challenges related to agriculture, food systems, human wellbeing, natural resources and sustainable communities. Visit the CALS website at, and follow CALS on social media platforms at @ufcals.

By: Dana Edwards, 352-392-1963,

Sources: Leigh Ann Skurupey, 303-910-1752,

Saundra TenBroeck, 352-494-6177,