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Tuesday, September 26, 2023


Coming up from nothing, Byron Pitts inspires UH students

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Award-winning journalist Byron Pitts spent a day at UH talking to students about how to achieve their goals and “step out on nothing” for others. | Pablo Milanese/The Cougar

ABC News Chief National Correspondent and Emmy-award winning journalist Byron Pitts spent a full day on campus Monday after his memoir “Step Out on Nothing: How Faith and Family Helped Me Conquer Life’s Challenge” was chosen as the “common book” for the debut of the Provost Summer Reading Program.

“I was humbled (when the Provost selected my book),” Pitts said. “It is beyond my dream that anyone in a college setting would be interested in what I have to say.”

Pitts is a renowned journalist and has won a total of six Emmy Awards and four Associated Press Awards for his coverage of national news. He received national recognition for his work at Ground Zero on Sept. 11 and has covered major historical events such as the war in Iraq and the death of Nelson Mandela. Up until 2013, when Pitts started working for ABC, he served as the Chief National Correspondent for the CBS Evening News and contributed to 60 minutes.

Pitts grew up in a poor neighborhood on the east side of Baltimore, Md. His mother was a single parent, had him before she finished high school and worked several odd jobs to make ends meet. Pitts said he identifies as a blue-collar kid, and is “proud of it.”

“One thing I love about our country, as flawed as it is, is in America you can do anything you want to do,” Pitts said. “If you put your mind to it, your heart to it, invest the time and energy, surround yourself with the right people — you can do it.”

Pitts said he hopes he can serve as a symbol of hope for students who are disadvantaged in life like he was. Pitts did not learn to read until he was 12 years old. He was diagnosed as mentally retarded in sixth grade and was told he was “functionally illiterate.” Pitts also coped with a stutter that hindered his progress as a student and did not go away until he was a junior in college.

“Coming to this stage reminds me how blessed I’ve been in my life,” Pitts said, “It reminds me what’s important to me and where I come from.”

Pitts decided he wanted to be a journalist at a very young age after witnessing how policemen treated protesters at his church in Baltimore during the Civil Rights Movement. Pitts said when journalists were present, the police were not forceful with protesters.

“If there were no reporters present, the police would be very aggressive, physical, pushing people around,” Pitts said. “As a child I recognized the power that journalists have — to put truth to power.”

Pitts said he wrote his book for many reasons, but mainly to let people know that everyone has struggles and a story.

“I found that it’s sometimes helpful if you hear that you’re not alone,” Pitts said. “I want to encourage people.”

Starting the day with a Q&A

Pitts started his day at 10 a.m. in the UC Theatre Room at a Q&A seminar for communications students. Pitts told students that despite the negative talk surrounding the future of journalism majors, students still have a good chance at being successful in the field.

“Don’t let anyone discourage you about the profession,” Pitts said. “You can live a rich and wonderful life. You can cover conflict, you can see the world, you can meet interesting people, you can do important work — it is all in your power.”

Communications students said they enjoyed Pitts’ session and are grateful he was able to come to campus.

“I loved it,” said broadcast journalism junior DeAndra Hurd. “I wish the campus would host more of these because they are so helpful.”

Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences John Roberts said Pitts’ visit was “catalytic” for UH students who have faced hardships.

“His being here simply reinforces the fact (anyone can be successful),” Roberts said. “You can be on academic probation your freshmen year and still become a national correspondent for a network.”

Provost Summer Read Program: The first of many

 Over 1,200 first-year students participated in the student-led discussions on Pitts’ book for the Provost Summer Reading Program. The program also incorporated an essay contest that challenged students to write about people who influenced their lives and how they’ve pushed past personal struggles and towards success. The top six essayists were rewarded with a special lunch with Pitts before his lecture.

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After talking to students inside Cullen Performance Hall, Pitts signed copies of his book, “Step Out of Nothing: How Faith and Family Helped Me Conquer Life’s Challenge.” | Pablo Milanese/The Cougar

“I am beyond grateful,” said economics freshman Jackson Crawford. “As great as I thought it was going to be, the whole experience surpassed my expectations. He’s such a great guy; he doesn’t take himself too seriously, but he can talk about serious subjects. It was great.”

The students spent more than an hour in a conference room at the Hilton UH, enjoying a conversation with Pitts over a four-course meal.

“I just admire his approach to life and him sharing so much with us,” said chemical engineering freshman Brittany Trinh.

After lunch, Pitts made his final stop at the Ezekiel W. Cullen Performance Hall to lecture to students about his book, his personal experiences and his success in life. Many students who asked questions were moved by his book and said they were thankful Pitts had come to campus to speak with them.

“When you were speaking earlier I had tears in my eyes because this book has really touched me,” said business freshman Manek Hooda said to Pitts during his lecture. “It instilled me with the faith that I can have that great college experience, that I can step out on nothing for someone else. You don’t know our story… Yet you have faith that we can change the world, and I just want to say thank you.”

Hotel and restaurant management junior Kendall Stephenson was just one of the many students who agreed with Hooda during the lecture.

“You’re an inspiration to me, and you’ve taught me so many great things,” Stephenson said. “What you have said today is what I have needed to hear, and it has changed my life.”

After the lecture, Pitts signed copies of his book for students before returning to his home in New York.

“Dream bold, ridiculous ideas,” Pitts said in the closing of his lecture. “Your vision for your life should be so crazy that people laugh when they hear it. It doesn’t matter where you come from, what you look like or how much money your family has — you can do anything you want to do.”

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