Horry-Georgetown Technical College
"When I got in contact with professors at HGTC, I just knew it was where I belonged. It started me on the road for success."
My name is Robert L. Pierce, and I’m a Peer Navigator in the Early Intervention Services at Little River Medical Center. In my role, I associate and engage with patients and clients, just to encourage them and let them know that we’ve been in the chair they’re sitting in. I live with HIV, and the emphasis is on living with HIV. We help them along the pathway of finding strength to deal with whatever difficulties or obstacles they encounter.
Tell us about your journey to Horry-Georgetown Technical College and beyond.
Well, it’s a retake! I graduated high school in 1987, and was accepted to Southeastern University in Washington, D.C., but I declined the offer because it was a pit of awkwardness moving away for the first time to a big city. I made the decision to stay in my small town, and life intervened: I married, I divorced and hit the streets. I was the youngest of 10 kids, and all of my brothers and two of my sisters had substance abuse issues. I said I was never going to be like that, but never say never.
When I graduated high school, I was trying to conform to the norm. I knew I was gay, but in a small town it’s hard to truly identify and accept oneself. I got married at an early age with two stepchildren. Then my own daughter came along. I lived a life of uncertainty, so to speak. When all that detonated, I got divorced in ‘94, I guess I tried to recapture what I thought I had lost as a young man fresh out of high school. I wanted to gain some perspective on what I should do with my life. But the streets had a stronger perspective for me. From ‘94 until 2015, it was the street life for me. I was an active addict. I became highly addicted to crack cocaine and alcohol.
I had decided to pursue my academic career soon after my divorce, but the thing about pursuing an academic career while addicted to drugs is it does not work. I dropped out. When I left and went back into the streets, nothing changed. I wasn’t getting any better. I wasn’t growing. I wasn’t developing.
I did whatever it took to get high, and I ended up being promiscuous. I developed full-blown AIDS and was hospitalized in 2002 because I had developed pneumonia. While I was there, I had an out-of-body experience where I was in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. I prayed and asked Him to send me back so I could spend more time with my family. Even despite that experience and being in so much pain, the disease of addiction still had a hold on me for another 13 years.
What brought you back to HGTC?
At the end of 2015, I had met my future husband Edward, and I had a choice to make between a relationship with him or going back to the street life. I chose the streets. But then a young man who was my age — 47 years old — overdosed and died in a house down the street from me. It was as if the scales had fallen from my eyes. I woke up and it was like, “What have I done to myself?” I just said three words: “God help me.” I meant it. I truly, heartfully meant it from my soul, my body and spirit.
I walked away and I got into treatment. While I was in treatment, I remembered who Robert was. See, somehow I had been given the nickname “Crook” as a kid. When I hit the street, I lived the life of my nickname, but Robert was somewhere still buried deep down in there: the first out of 10 siblings who graduated high school and wanted better for his life. I remembered the dreams of that kid.
When I got out of treatment, I entered a 12-step program and I re-enrolled at Horry-Georgetown Technical College in the summer of 2016. That’s why I call it my retake!
How did you know Horry-Georgetown was the place you wanted to be after all these years?
To tell you the truth, before I ever started my first round with HGTC, I would always look over to where the college is located when I was back and forth on Highway 501. It was like I was being magnetically pulled there. When I truly decided to go back, that magnetic pull got even stronger.
While I was in treatment, I remembered walking down the hallways of HGTC in the late ‘90s. I remembered that feeling of wanting to have a better life for myself, even while I was still addicted to drugs.
This time, I was going back with a clear frame of mind: no mood-changing or mind-altering substances; no cobwebs in my head. I decided I was going back as a kid. I was going to be teachable.
I got to know people. With my personality, I would go down the hallways and speak with professors, get to know them, and let them get to know me. I made myself known as someone who was welcoming, and I was like that because I had the same desire as a little kid. You know how a kid gets excited at a candy store? That was me at Horry-Georgetown Technical College. It was a whole new world.
Did you feel accepted by the Horry-Georgetown community?
I was welcomed for my nationality, my ethics, my sexual identity, my physical condition, my emotional condition. I gravitated towards those who were supportive and loved me unconditionally, regardless of my past.
All my life I felt that I lived the life of an anachronism. I was out of place and out of time, until I stepped back into my academic studies. I became an open book for anyone to read. I no longer concealed my identity and my personality. I learned to love me.
How did that impact you?
I revealed a piece of my testimony to a professor in psychology, Professor Paul Crolley. He said, “Well, you would be a good fit for human services. Get in contact with Professor Causey or Professor Bennet.” When I got in contact with those professors, I knew it was where I belonged. It started me on the road to success.
All I learned about human services at Horry-Georgetown Technical College continued to Columbia College, where I was chosen to be the graduation speaker. Now I get to serve other humans. And it’s so much more than just medical services. The patients at Little River get conversation and encouragement, and they send back positive feedback to me, other Peer Navigators, and nurses: “You guys are awesome, you made my day. I appreciate your support. I don’t know what I would’ve done if I didn’t have a conversation with you today.”
Many years ago, I came across a postcard that I still have to this day. It reads: “Follow the dream that’s in your heart. Make it a matter of prayer. Faith will open doors for you that you never dreamt were there. Bring what’s deep inside your heart to the light and never give up. Even though life can place stumbling blocks in your way, just keep the faith.”
I’m a grateful recovering addict — and I now feel whole. In spite of all the mess in my past, I finally feel whole.