May 5, 2014Vol. 44, Issue 5

Mind Wide Open

Vet Uses Higher Education to Help Answer Big Questions

Michael Fitzpatrick grew up in a tiny Northern California town. Trees were infinitely more plentiful than opportunities. His post-high school options were limited.

Now, 11 years later, he is weighing his PhD options—Stanford or Yale.

But back in 2003, says the English graduate student, he “just wanted to do something meaningful while figuring out my life.” Fitzpatrick took a job in the U.S. Army as a chaplain’s assistant, a position he describes as a combination of a counselor and advocate for religious freedom. Fitzpatrick ended up spending five years in the Army, doing two tours in Iraq.

“It totally changed the way I see the world, and the way I see war and globalization and all kinds of things,” he says of that time. It also changed the very nature of his thinking.

“This is something a lot of people don’t know: War forces you to be philosophical because it confronts you with things you can’t really make sense of. And I think that’s largely how I ended up where I am now, in literature and philosophy, because I just find myself thinking about things all the time and questioning things and wanting to explore things. 

Fitzpatrick started taking night and online classes while in the Army. “I’d open a book on the hood of a Humvee, try to do my homework,” he says. “Not the ideal way to go to school, but I was determined.” He discovered a love for Dostoyevsky and Milton, finding his heart, he says, in literature. “But that was definitely something that developed; it was not germane to who I was.”

By the time he got out of the military, Fitzpatrick was ready for an academic life, although he says the transition was not easy. “I was basically starting over. I certainly was not naturally an academic.” 

But the support of his English and philosophy professors made the shift to academia possible, he says. “The faculty here have just been phenomenal. They have taken me under their wing, they have blown my mind wide open, taught me new things, guided me toward opportunities, and really helped me succeed. It has been a good transition largely because of that.

Fitzpatrick, left, with an Army comrade in Iraq.

Fitzpatrick, left, with an Army comrade in Iraq.

“At Chico State, I learned how to think systematically—rather than rely on my vague intuitions the way I used to,” he adds. "I learned to think more clearly and rigorously.” 

Fitzpatrick finished a bachelor’s degree at CSU, Chico in philosophy—and his clear and rigorous thinking won him the student research competition three years running. His first win was for an ethics project with Professor Robert Jones, Philosophy, about the use of the word “natural” in contemporary debates about values. He is now capping his time here with a master’s thesis on how freedom is described in John Milton’s last three poems.

This summer, Fitzpatrick moves on to UC Davis to work with a faculty member specializing in the philosophy of language—an opportunity he received as the winner of the prestigious CSU Sally Casanova Predoctoral Scholarship. He hopes this will give him a head start on his PhD. 

“I’m really interested in meaning and language,” he says. “I took a semantics class here at Chico State with Saundra Wright, and I’ve been kind of in love with the topic ever since.” 

His goal is to teach philosophy at the university level eventually. But for now, he’s just focusing on the next opportunity: “Chico has been great, but I feel like I’ve really done everything here that I need to. I am really excited to go somewhere new—new faculty, new community—and see what it has to offer.” 

—Anna Harris, Public Affairs and Publications 

In 2012, Michael Fitzpatrick wrote about his experiences in “From Iraq to Chico: An Intellectual Journey.” This story is available on the Chico State blog.

Senior Sendoff

Senior Send-Off

Soon-to-be grads tell us "what's next" at Senior Send-Off. See their responses.

Sarah Langford

From the Editor

Chico State faculty and staff have left an indelible mark on the class of 2014. Read more.

click to comment on an article in this issue