When Pete Savarese of Hilton Head Island marched in Erskine College Commencement exercises May 21, it was the end of one journey and the beginning of another, just as it was for all his classmates. But for Pete, a social studies major and soccer player who underwent seven surgeries during his undergraduate career, the college journey was long, and he encountered both opportunities and obstacles along the way.
Rough start, strong support
“My freshman year I broke my back and needed to be home for a semester while I recovered from a pretty extensive surgery,” he recalls. “This obviously put me behind in completing my degree.”
Pete’s injury, which occurred while he was playing the sport he loves, did not hold him back for long. Despite his medical difficulties, he jumped back into the small-college experience, including sports and student government.
A former Student Government Association president and a veteran of Winter Term trips and other international excursions, he looks back in gratitude for his time at Erskine.
“Soccer was one of my many highlights at Erskine. It was my childhood dream to play in college. So when I slipped on my Erskine jersey before the matches, I had a tremendous amount of pride,” he says.
“Unfortunately, my body couldn’t hold up the way I had hoped, but I lived my dream. Erskine always held a spot for me and always gave me a chance to keep playing. Not many schools would have done that, so I am very grateful.”
Pete remembers a special moment that captures the glory and the pain of his time as a student athlete. “One of my favorite memories at Erskine College was my very last kick of soccer,” he says. “I scored a goal on a broken foot and had to be subbed off, but the amount of support I received from the student body and faculty touched me deeply and meant more than people will ever know.”
He also enjoyed support from professors, staff members, and others at Erskine, and this made a difference for him as a student.
“There were many, many people who influenced me and were mentors to me. It would be impossible to name them all,” he says, but he makes an attempt, citing two history professors, a psychology professor, Erskine’s alumni director and his wife, a sociology professor, an administrator, and an alumna and her husband.
“Dr. Grier and Dr. Chaney taught me how to study and how to dedicate myself. Dr. Elsner showed me my love for travel. Kim and Buddy Ferguson through their example showed me what true Christianity is. Dr. Sniteman was one of the best professors I have ever had.”
He is thankful to Kimberly Webb Fields ’82 and her husband Steve “for being my second family while I was at college” and expresses appreciation for former Vice President for Student Services and Dean of Students Dr. Bryan Rush, a member of Erskine’s Class of 1998, who met with Pete several times a week during his term as SGA president.
“He taught me how to be a better leader and how to empower the people around me,” Pete says of Rush. “His influence on me directly correlates to my new career and I am very thankful …for all the time and energy he gave me.”
The school of student government
Pete kept busy studying and playing his sport, but says, “I got involved in student government because I saw things that I wanted to change and felt like I could bring about that change.” Although he served on the SGA Cabinet, including a term as parliamentarian, he never thought he would be elected president.
He was “very hesitant” when he was approached about running for president. “The most difficult thing for me was the organization. I do very well interacting with people but all the fine details of different meetings and things like that I lose track of very easily, so I relied heavily on everyone in the cabinet to help me with that!”
Pete’s role as SGA president required that he meet “with individuals and student groups trying to voice their concerns and opinions,” and this was sometimes hard, depending on the issue or situation.
One of his successes as president, working with SGA Treasurer Ford Blanchard, was a series of campus improvements funded wholly or in part by an accumulation of “rollover money” from student organizations. Upgrades to the Galloway Fitness Center, structural repair and renovation of the Ellenburg Pavilion, improvements to the Hangar, and the creation of a study area in the campus police station were among the largest and most visible projects completed.
“Student government also in a very positive way was the best preparation for the real world,” he says. “I learned how to be professional, organized, and how to manage other people. I can say with 100 percent certainty that SGA prepared me best for life after college.”
Working hard, traveling far
Before fully embarking on “life after college,” Pete saw quite a bit of the world through travel. “I went to Spain to hike the Camino de Santiago,” he says, and adds, “I could talk for hours about how incredibly awesome the journey was.” He traveled to Costa Rica “several times during the summers.”
He also went to Ireland, Northern Ireland, England, and Scotland. “I am obsessed with British culture,” he admits, “so that was the best way to experience it.” Anyone who thinks there might be a sports connection here would be right.
“While in England I got to see my football team, Arsenal, defeat Manchester City live, which proved to be a very significant match for the club that season!”
Before and during his Erskine experience, Pete has been happy to meet and become friends with Europeans and others from outside the United States “who all offered their homes to me when I traveled, which was a massive blessing.”
He ended his college travels with a memorable trip to New Zealand, and even there he had “Kiwi” friends he’d met during his work at Gwynn Valley, a camp in North Carolina.
How did he manage to do so much traveling during his college years? “Traveling was made possible first by our college having a J-Term,” Pete says. “I worked very hard during the summers to save money each year for my travels. I started my own business in high school called ‘Pete’s Glow Sticks,’ which besides the money was a tremendous experience learning how to own and operate a business. I did that through the summers from ninth grade through my senior year in college.”
He also worked as a coach, at summer camps, and in an ice cream shop and deli. “My goal then and even now is to save money every paycheck to spend on travel at the end of the year,” he says. “I plan to go to Italy this coming Christmas so I need to get off Amazon and start saving more money!”
He also acknowledges his parents’ generosity. “They have always encouraged me and my siblings to travel whenever we can.”
Pete says travel helps him “see things from the other side,” which he believes is important.
“America is not the only country in the world and our culture is not the only culture,” he says. “By traveling I have been able to experience firsthand how millions of people live differently every day, and it has made me appreciate things from other cultures and on the flip side of that, helped me appreciate more what we have in our own country.”
Learning from experience, seizing the moment
Now, he is moving forward, with an enthusiasm familiar to his Erskine friends, as the owner and operator of the “Kayaks” and “Stand-Up Paddleboard” sections of a water sports company, H2O Sports. He was able to buy his own business in part because of timing. Recovery from injury and surgeries certainly delayed his graduation, but “set me up perfectly to buy my business,” he says.
“At the end of the day in a weird way I am very thankful,” he muses. “I got extra time at Erskine and it allowed me to have a very relaxed last semester at college where I could enjoy my last competitive soccer season, take some fun classes, and be at the place I loved with the people I loved for just a bit longer.”
Pete participated in “seven or eight different organizations” while at Erskine and “loved them all.” He says each different organization “taught me something that I have used in my business now.”
“Had I graduated on time, I would have most likely gone straight into working and would not have had the opportunity to purchase my sections of H2O sports,” he says.
“My two sections have eight staff members, including me,” Pete explains. “We do ‘eco tours’ of the south end of [Hilton Head Island] on the kayaks and offer stand-up paddleboard (SUP) lessons to teach you how to do the sport.”
And what about that social studies degree?
“Hilton Head is full of history, and I incorporate that into my tours,” he says. “So I am not exactly applying my major in the manner that you would think, but every day, I am teaching customers about our island and our history!”
‘Finally graduating’ and saying goodbye
For Pete, commencement in May was a strange time. In the preceding few months, as he waited to march with the Class of 2016, he had focused on his new venture in Hilton Head. “I had been out of school for a bit and had my taste of the real world,” he says. “Those were actually my first days off since nearly the start of February because I had been working and learning my new business.”
Even though he had been preoccupied with getting started in the water sports business, when the day of commencement came, he found it was “a very emotional time” for him.
Some students on campus did not know the real story of his college career, punctuated as it was by surgeries and recoveries. “A lot of people had always thought that I was just lazy in school and that’s why I was there for an extra semester,” he says. Some even joked with him about “finally graduating,” which was “kind of frustrating and funny at the same time.”
Pete concluded his extended time as an Erskine student in May 2016. Many of the students with whom he had entered college had graduated the previous May.
“I wouldn’t go back and change a thing about how my schedule worked out even though I had to go through some back, hip, and ankle surgeries,” he says.
“Even though I will come back to Erskine in the future, it was in a way my goodbye,” he says. “I think I probably loved Erskine even more than most people do, so to have to say goodbye shook me up inside a bit.”
“I think for me, for my personality, I really needed a small school. I definitely needed an environment where I could know everyone,” he explains. He knows some people want a big school, but that was not for him.
“I would have been lost and only had a few friends. Instead I left school with eight or nine hundred friends!” he says. “Any time I am asked what made Erskine such a great place to be, I always have one answer—the people that make up the Erskine family.”
Considering this, he concludes, “I think the biggest advantage I received from Erskine is a mindset that every person counts, every person is valuable, and every person around you deserves your time and effort.”
Pete will have three more surgeries in September.
This summer, he continues managing his business, introducing customers to the history of Hilton Head Island and the beauty of pushing through the water in kayaks and on paddleboards.
That’s life after Erskine.