Post 50

Going Back To School: Motivated By Tragedy, Teresa A. Pitts Graduates UCLA With Honors

Later when I brought up the school’s admission page, all I saw was “Congratulations.” I ran into the room I was about to teach in and I told my students ... tears started rolling down my face.

Teresa A. Pitts of Los Angeles, Calif., 52, had a bumpy start with education -- she didn’t graduate with her high school class and dropped out of college twice. But at 46, after the deaths of her beloved older brother and mom, Pitts went back to school and graduated from UCLA with honors in May. She’s now planning to go to law school and is gearing up for the LSAT. She spoke with Huff/Post50 associate editor Anthonia Akitunde. Here is her story in her own words:

When I was in high school my older brother Greg -- who was in college at Dartmouth -- had a bout of colon cancer, which I’m told is very rare in someone so young. On top of that I got wrapped up in some unimportant stuff, like issues with girlfriends. I struggled in high school toward the end because I wasn’t happy and I didn’t know what to do about it. What ended up happening was that I didn’t graduate with my class because I didn’t pass English -- I had to go to summer school.

Both of my parents were in the Air Force –- they strongly believed in the power of education. I remember my mom driving past the graduation. She asked me if I wanted to go. I remember saying to her, “Why would I want to go and remind myself that I’m a failure?”

My dad still has my cap and gown and my announcements from high school folded up in his drawer. Just seeing the white cap and gown and the announcements that never went out -- I know that had to be heartbreaking for him.

Despite not graduating with my class, I was accepted to Ohio Wesleyan University because of my accomplishments in music (I was in “The Who’s Who In Music 1976-1977”).

But when I went there, I was eight hours away from home and I got caught up in the party life. Sometimes I would go to class, sometimes I wouldn’t. I wasn’t really treating school with much respect.

I went through another period of depression. My GPA fell behind 2.0 and I was put on academic probation my sophomore year. The school said I could come back in the summer, but I was very angry then. I needed someone to tell me that you’re not proving anything by saying “I’m not coming back.” It ended up with me not finishing at Ohio Wesleyan -- I left in 1979.

My parents were very devastated; I could see it in their faces. It was like I couldn’t finish what I started. I get into a good college against the odds and now I’m not graduating again.

I was getting ready to move to California when my brother passed away on December 22, 1979. That was a really strange time for me. I looked up to my brother because he was studying law at Boston College. When I messed up, he would make me laugh. He told me he once had a nightmare that he was a French fry and I was the only one in the room. I absolutely love french fries!

My brother was my role model and my mother was my absolute best friend. She kept our family together. I remember coming home from college and she had a sign out on the porch that said, “Welcome home, Teresa.” She was definitely my biggest champion.

When she got sick, I went back home. She had an aneurism of the aorta. She went into the hospital at Johns Hopkins and she never woke up from the operation. They said if she had woken up, she would’ve been on a feeding tube.

During one of our last visits, my sister Barbara said, “That’s it. Mom saw Greg.” They say your loved ones come and get you. It wasn’t too long before my dad agreed with me about taking her off life support and see if she would continue. She passed away December 28, 1991.

* * *

I worked a number of jobs in L.A. before I quit a job I had for 15 years in financial services to go back to school in 2005. I thought about my brother because he had gone to law school and he did not finish, not because he didn’t want to but because he died. He didn’t get to realize his dream and it was a shame because he was brilliant. And here I was throwing away education frivolously. So when I went back in 2005, I was determined. I thought about Greg often, any time I got tired or lazy. I would say, “You don’t even have a right to do that. He was in a wheelchair and he still managed to go to law school!” I told people I was going to graduate or die.

I went to Santa Monica College and got my associate degree in liberal arts with high honors in 2010. I was an instructor at Time Warner Cable while I was at SMC, so that was 40 hours a week. I would go from Hollywood all the way to Santa Monica to go to school.

I used to buy books for other students because I felt money should not be the reason for a person to not get their education. I just wanted people to succeed. I was 46 and these kids were 20 -- I didn't have kids. I had a natural instinct to help people.

When I went to SMC I mentally wiped the slate clean. But of course when I applied to UCLA I had to list the grades from 26 years ago. At the time I had a 3.8 GPA, but when the admissions counselor took my past into account it dropped me 8 points. I almost fainted. All I saw was that UCLA was gone.

The admission counselor said, “Teresa, UCLA is smart enough to look at the whole picture instead of a brush stroke.”

Later when I brought up the school’s admission page, all I saw was “Congratulations.” I ran into the room I was about to teach in and I told my students -- they all clapped. When I turned away from them, tears started rolling down my face.

I spent two years at UCLA and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English with college honors. I went to four different graduation events from Friday through Sunday: the honors, English, college and African ceremonies. I was constantly ironing my gown!

At the UCLA African ceremony, they allow for people to yell the names of those who have passed away. Afterwards, they would say “Ashe,” a Yoruba word that means power, command and authority -- the ability to make whatever one says happen. It was kind of like of a respectful memorial to those people who couldn't be there. I was standing on stage in the front line and I said “Gregory Lamont Pitts” and it resonated through the place. No one yelled over each other. Then I yelled out “Annie Coleman Pitts.” I stood up there and there was no amount of bargaining I could do to stop those tears. I said her full name so they know exactly who I was talking about in heaven.

They would’ve been there. They would’ve flown out for the graduation. It was really a calming moment for me, for them to be a part of my graduation.

I sent my dad my graduation photo. He called me and said, “Hey, it’s your dad. I got your picture. You used a whole bunch of bubble wrap; I’m going to save that!"

I was kind of holding my breath. Then he said, “I called to tell you, that picture is really something. You really did it, kid. You really did it. I just wanted to call and tell you that.”

Later he told me he had the picture up at home and one of his friends asked him if that was his daughter. He told them, “Yeah, that’s my daughter. She’s a go-getter like her mom.”

I had never heard him speak that way about me. I went on Facebook and I made a status that said, “My dad called tonight. He said I did a good thing and I was a go-getter like my mom. This is the best day of my life.”

Teresa Pitts Academic Odyssey

Correction: An earlier version of this post said that Pitts' father was at work when a colleague saw a picture of Pitts graduating. The picture was actually seen at her father's home by a friend.