2020 Graduates: From the presidential guard to Realtor to business owner, Peter Spinella is now a URI graduate

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – May 4, 2020 — “Where I am now, is not where I thought I would be,” said Peter Spinella of Wakefield.

The self-described “accidental entrepreneur” had planned on a career in federal law enforcement after his four-years with the Coast Guard – including an assignment as a White House presidential guard – and had several starts to a college degree that were, in his words, interrupted by life, jobs, family and the economy.

During one such return, Spinella was called back to serve while taking classes at the University of Rhode Island.

“What started out as a normal fall day with an early class in literature would turn into the most horrific attack on U.S. soil,” he said.

That day was Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. A series of four coordinated attacks by al-Qaeda, the Islamic terrorist group, resulted in nearly 3,000 fatalities, more than 5,000 injuries and more than $10 billion in property damage.

Spinella was deployed to New York City as part of a fast-reaction team with the Verona, New Jersey Rescue Squad. “I spent most of my time looking for survivors,” he said.

Spinella would try his hand at many professions including scuba instructor, electrician, cook, real estate agent and gym owner.

His real estate license in particular led to many lucrative investment opportunities that helped him build his own agency, Guardian Realty, a name chosen by his children in tribute to the Coast Guard who are guardians of the sea.

When the real estate market declined, foreclosure work kept Spinella going until that, too, leveled off.

It was then that Spinella knew he needed a new plan.

His wife saw a job posting from the U.S. Coast Guard looking for a property specialist in Warwick. He applied and was selected for the position.

A conversation with some friends at a party led to a new business venture – a fitness center. Like his real estate agency, the gym business grew fast and soon a second location was under consideration.

“Never in my plan was I going to be a Realtor or business owner,” he said.

He was successful at each job, but there were limits to just how far he could go without a college degree, he said.

“I missed quite a few opportunities because I did not have a degree,” he said. “I was able to succeed and excel but I did it the hard way. In some cases, it took me twice as long to achieve milestones that others with a degree had reached.”

Without a degree, he said, he had exceeded promotion potential with the federal government and was limited in obtaining certifications that would allow his career to continue.

On May 17, at age 46, in the midst of a global pandemic, Peter Spinella will finally have that college degree this month, a Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies (BIS) in Human Studies.

Spinella said the degree, along with the Finish What You Started program that offered flexibility to a working adult student, are why he chose to continue his studies at URI.

With his bachelor’s degree, Spinella has earned certifications to become part of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Department of Homeland Security.

“It is surreal bliss,” he said. “Doors are now open that were closed.”