Careers and convergence: a professor pursues his calling

Posted on November 15, 2012

Competitive drive, investment in relationships, and openness to opportunity lead Dr. Steve Sniteman along a path of unexpected turns.

Dr Steve SnitemanSteve Sniteman considers himself “blessed with having two careers and many mini-careers.”

As a young pilot in the U.S. Air Force, he flew jets all over the world, winding up in Italy. In 1993, he came to Erskine as a professor of sociology and put down roots in Due West with his wife Maria and son Shane.

Since then, he has taken on a couple of administrative challenges and, along the way, discovered and cultivated a talent for graphic arts and photography.

This past summer, he got the chance to do a photo shoot for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

No more teachers, no more books?
“My professional career began by barely escaping from college, having spent my first two years on academic probation,” Steve muses. “That experience seemed to be a good indicator that I was not suited for the classroom.”

Determined never to set foot in school again, he joined the Air Force and discovered that “my entire career was to some degree a classroom, as I went from flight school to training centers, to professional education and then to additional degrees.”

But that’s getting ahead of the story. First, he had a lot of fun as an F-4 and later an F-16 fighter pilot. “Enjoyable? You bet,” he says, describing flying fighter planes for a living as “a royal kick.”

Piloting the F16

Dr Sniteman flew both the F4 and the F16, pictured here.

There was a serious side. “The prevailing zeitgeist in the fighter community was never to tolerate second-best. After all, in aerial combat, losers don’t come back.”

The future professor absorbed some key convictions: a “whatever” attitude was not acceptable; details mattered; blaming your failure on someone else was not an option; and “if you failed, you failed, and those failures resulted in consequences.”

Those convictions became ingrained through 26 military transfers. He experienced “myriad cultures and countries while
playing a professional nomad, going from one place to the next.”

Providence and new prospects
A few detours later, family life became more important, and among many ideas Steve entertained was the possibility of teaching. The man who never wanted to be corralled in a classroom started trotting toward an academic career.

“In a series of remarkable moves that I can only ascribe to the Lord’s intervention, near the end of my Air Force career I found myself in a Ph.D. program at Utah State University,” he recalls.

Then he was summoned overseas one last time. “I was forced to complete my dissertation in Italy, where I retired from the Air Force.”

He moved to Erskine from Italy. “Naples to Due West. Who would have thought? So much for my planning. But then again, so much for God’s.”

At Erskine, in addition to teaching classes in psychology, Steve served as vice president for enrollment management and technology, then as chief marketing officer, the latter role drawing on his growing facility with graphic design (a subject he now teaches regularly). That’s when he began working with Jason Peevy, launching a friendship that persisted through Jason’s moves to the University of Georgia, Emory University, and the Smithsonian.

Mixing it up
Jason had become public relations director at Erskine upon the retirement of longtime director Richard Haldeman. As Jason, a former newspaper reporter, found his feet in a second career, Steve forged a mini-career of his own. “It was a working relationship like no other I’ve ever experienced,” Jason said.

Steve, with his fighter-pilot drive to be best, found Jason even more competitive. “I didn’t think that was possible.”

Jason credits Steve with inspiring him always to raise the bar, never to be satisfied to settle. “These are things I’ve taken with me to other jobs, including my work at the Smithsonian,” he explains.

When Jason came to the Smithsonian as director of campaign communications, his boss advised him to work with people he trusted. So when he needed photography help, “Steve was the first person to come to mind.”

The project covered two main subject areas. The first focused on the Smithsonian Castle and the National Mall area. The second setting was the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center on the Chesapeake Bay.

Researching the Chesapeake Day

Photo by Sniteman of the ongoing Chesapeake Bay research

Seems like old times
Steve says it took about ten seconds for the two to revive their working relationship. “The same competitive atmosphere prevailed as did the same commitment to excellence as at Erskine.”

Working long, hot hours in a bug-ridden marsh, snapping researchers who were studying crabs and fish, neither was willing to admit fatigue.  “I’d tell Steve I guessed we better wrap up because I was sure he was getting tired, and of course he’d respond, ‘Let’s keep going unless you’re tired.’”

Jason’s assessment of his friend’s performance? “Steve was as creative and daring as ever, which is exactly what I needed.”

Map for a less traveled road
Not everyone can be a fighter pilot. Fewer still can morph from fighter pilot into sociology professor. Not many have slumbering graphic arts and photography talents to be awakened.

Still, Professor Sniteman offers advice to students as they consider career paths. In fact, his most basic advice is about “the road less traveled,” which, he says, “should often be traveled.”  While it is great to have a career plan, he says, be ready for a change.

At the Smithsonian, by Sniteman

In his own life, he has pursued two major careers but also multiple careers subsumed within the broader framework, and none he predicted.

He reminds students, “Be a lifelong learner and do not get hung up on a GPA. Once you get your first job, what you do is more important. Enthusiasm and a great attitude will do far more than a transcript.”

Stressing attention to each project, he says, “Finish what you start and do it right—the first time. If you didn’t have time to do it right initially, why would you expect to have the time to do it right the second time?”

Finally, friendships should be maintained. “Good ones don’t come around often and when they do, they might show up when you least expect them.”

A certain old friend of his might agree. “We are always in touch,” says Jason.