Education helps UF graduate to cope with legacy of combat tours

Published: December 9 2013

Category:Announcements, InsideUF, Top Stories

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — U.S. Army Sgt. Phillip Pitts was stationed at a small outpost without walls in Rawah, a city northwest of Baghdad. He and his fellow soldiers ate MREs every day for a year and didn’t have reliable phone or Internet service. They guarded the perimeter and spent days searching for weapon caches and bomb factories.

Pitts, now 34, had good friends die during his deployment to Iraq from August 2006 to November 2007, and it prompted him to ponder some deep questions.

“It made me think more about why I was serving. What were the consequences for everyone involved? It ultimately pushed me to explore school,” said Pitts, who will receive a bachelor’s degree Dec. 14 from the University of Florida. He is among 2,002 graduates expected to participate in fall commencement ceremonies this weekend.

Pitts, who majored in English and minored in Florida Teaching, maintained a 4.00 grade-point average and is one of two outstanding two-year scholars in his graduating class.

After a second deployment to Iraq for six months in 2010, Pitts returned to the U.S. and enrolled in classes at Santa Fe College. He started at UF in summer 2012 and took classes on subjects as varied as modern drama, 20th-century British literature and integrated technology in secondary education.

Pitts’ education, which started as a way to make sense of what he experienced during his two combat tours, rekindled one of his first passions: poetry.

“What originally sparked my interest was Walt Whitman’s book when I was 15 years old,” said Pitts, who discovered “Leaves of Grass” while wandering through a bookstore. After reading the poems, Pitts tried unsuccessfully to write. While at Santa Fe College, Pitts published three poems in its literary magazine, Zephyr. Creative writing gives him an outlet to decipher what he saw during the war, he said.

“Writing about my feelings has helped me process everything,” Pitts said.

In addition to classes, Pitts has had an internship at the Malcom Randall VA Medical Center for the last two years. After graduation, he intends to seek employment with the facility as a way to give back, he said.

“It feels good to be with people who may have similar experiences,” Pitts said. “It just feels good to be a part of being there for what I feel like the veterans deserve.”

Pitts will be recognized for his scholarship at the 10 a.m. ceremony Dec. 14 for master’s, specialist’s and bachelor’s degree recipients. Also recognized will be the following outstanding four-year scholars: Francesca Dickhaus; Kimberly Greenplate, Jeffrey Masse and Emily Snyder. Also recognized will be the following distinguished educators: Derita Pinkard, Chris Wilson, Nancy Hunter, Dave Murphy and Kristen Rivas.

Charles Sewell, another outstanding two-year scholar, will be honored at the master’s, specialist’s and bachelor’s degree ceremony at 2 p.m. Dec. 14, along with Cortland Russell, an outstanding student leader. Distinguished alumni to be recognized at 2 p.m. are Paul Brown, Joe Collins and Dr. Michael Durham.

At 4 p.m. Dec. 13 during the doctoral degree ceremony, honorary degrees will be awarded to Dr. William Anspach, a philanthropist and retired orthopedic surgeon, and Norman Augustine, a corporate and military leader for many years, and founding director of the UF Engineering Leadership Institute.

All ceremonies will take place in the O’Connell Center.

This semester, a total of 1,933 students applied to graduate with a bachelor degree, and 1,098 for a master’s/specialist’s degree. Two-hundred ninety students applied for doctorates, and 65 applied for professional degrees.

Graduates, family and friends are encouraged to follow the University of Florida on Twitter and Instagram at @UFlorida and to include #UFGrad in tweets and posts before, during and after commencement. They can follow the #UFGrad social media conversation online – even without an account – by visiting the official UF Commencement Tagboard.

For more information, visit


Zack Peterson
Phillip Pitts,, 352-443-1981

Category:Announcements, InsideUF, Top Stories