It only took Alfonso Gonzales 69 years to earn a college degree.
For years, Gonzales—who had been the first in his family to attend college—believed he had already graduated from the University of Southern California with a Bachelors of Science in zoology.
According to USC, his name was included in the list of students eligible to participate in commencement during 1953. Yet Gonzales did not take part in the ceremony; he had work obligations.
When his family requested a copy of his diploma, they were told that, in fact, Gonzales was one credit short from graduating.
The veteran’s nephew, Mario Gonzales, told ABC 7 of his uncle’s reaction to his missing unit: “He just said, ‘I’ll do whatever USC says I need to do to get my degree.'”
It did not matter to Gonzales that neither his missing credit nor his zoology major were offered by the institution anymore.
Learning of Gonzales’ unique predicament, the USC Registrar, Frank Chang, enlisted the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology to help Gonzales finish his bachelor’s program.
USC Davis Instructional Assistant Professor Aaron Hagedorn created a course “substantive as any other USC course but tailored for Gonzales’ life experiences and needs as an older student.”
Hagedorn noted that Gonzales “is highly motivated by reminiscing and loves to read biographies on his own.” So, Gonzales’s personalized course examined autobiographies and “how the stories people tell others about themselves change throughout the life span.”
During Spring 2016, Gonzales received weekly reading and video assignments from Hagedorn, who also orchestrated Gonzales’s attendance of other gerontology classes.
Of the experience, Hagedorn said: “Teaching Alfonso was a great demonstration of the principles of andragogy, also known as adult learning theory, in creating a learning environment that was based on his life experiences,”
Los Angeles’ ABC 7 reported that Gonzales graduated from Redondo High School in 1939. Gonzales enlisted in the Navy in November 1942 where he received medical training before transfering to the Marine Corps in 1944 and received further medical training.
In 1945, Gonzales was deployed to Okinawa, Japan, where he treated the wounded during World War II.
On May 13, 2016, Gonzales attended his commencement ceremony, becoming the oldest graduate in USC history.
To mark the occasion, USC’s zoology major has been reopened to allow Gonzales to receive the original degree he began working toward so long ago.
“I enjoyed coming to USC, and I enjoyed the atmosphere of knowledge,” Gonzales said of his most recent college years. “Knowledge is intrinsic, and that can never be taken away from you.”