Student goes from life of crime to top 10 in class

Mark Cabrera is all smiles after being named Goose Creek High School Student Turnaround Award winner Thursday. The 20-year-old had his mom, Becky McElfresh, and nephew, Braden Brewer, at the event along with other family members. Cabrera says his turnarou

Sam Spencer-Pittman cried for three days when he entered The Citadel as a freshman in 2006, constantly calling his mom and telling her he wanted to quit and go to another college.

But the Roswell, N.M., native collected himself, endured the harsh rigors of military college life and stuck it out for four years.

On Saturday, the political science major was all smiles as he graduated along with 442 classmates who tossed their hats in victory to cheers from happy family members, dignitaries and others.

In a complete turnaround, Spencer-Pittman said he's glad he saw it through.

"I will definitely miss it," he said. "It feels like a big accomplishment. You've prepared yourself to do the next phase of your life."

That next phase is the U.S. Army. Spencer-Pittman signed on for seven years after college, and he won't have much down time after this weekend. He goes directly to Fort Lee in Virginia for quartermaster school and then onto Fort Lewis near Seattle in January. From there, he'll go wherever the Army sends him.

"I want to go to Afghanistan," he said. "I look at it as doing something bigger than myself."

Citadel President Lt. Gen. John W. Rosa congratulated the Class of 2010 not only for what they have accomplished thus far but also for the duty they will serve as civilians and military members in their communities and the nation.

Before administering the oath to 155 cadets entering the Armed Forces, Rosa said, "The lessons learned here will form the basis for all the decisions they make."

Guest speaker Bob Schieffer, chief Washington correspondent for CBS News and host of the Sunday political talk show "Face the Nation," peppered humor with the harsh reality of today's troubled world as he, too, congratulated the seniors.

"This is your day," he said. "You have earned it. No one can take it from you. So go out and celebrate it."

When he received his college degree, Schieffer said, "I felt like I had been given a substantial pay raise."

He quickly pointed out the country's economic malaise and said, "No job is going to come looking for you. You have to find it. .... Keep pounding on the door. Find something you like to do and do it to the best of your ability."

Citadel graduate Joe Villeneuve plans to do just that.

"I'm definitely ready," the Manchester, Md., native said. "I'll miss having my meals cooked for me three times a day, but it's exciting to get out into the real world."

The criminal justice major starts to work Monday with Charleston Police Department. He eventually wants to work in investigations with federal agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Administration or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Josh Hester said he will miss his friends but not much else.

"They say when all the bumps wear out, you forget about the bad times," he said, looking at the palm side of his college ring.

The business administration graduate eventually wants to go to Officer Training School, but for now he's going to work at Disney World in vacation planning and sales.

"Everything is so awful," he said of the past four years, "but you always feel like you are doing something that is making you better."

Among those receiving honorary degrees were: Schieffer; Marine Lt. Col. Randolph Bresnik, a NASA astronaut and 1989 Citadel graduate; Marc Buoniconti, a former Citadel linebacker paralyzed from the neck down while playing East Tennessee State in football in 1985 and who has raised more than $300 million in the continuing struggle to find a cure for paralysis; Bernard Gordon, a Citadel benefactor and engineer whose pioneering technologies such as dot matrix display, fetal monitors, navigation and traffic control systems, digital Doppler radar and the equipment that prints black-and-white X-ray films touched millions of lives; state Sen. Mike Rose, R-Summerville, for his public service; and Post and Courier editor emeritus Barbara Williams for her long and groundbreaking career as a journalist.

Reach Warren Wise at 937-5524 or wwise@postandcourier.com.