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UBC's 'slowest' graduate earns history degree 54 years after enrolling

Arthur Ross is seen in handout photos provided by UBC, one of them taken in 1969 and the other more recently. Arthur Ross is seen in handout photos provided by UBC, one of them taken in 1969 and the other more recently.

Among the thousands of students graduating from the University of British Columbia this week, Arthur Ross is unique.

At age 71, Ross is not the oldest person in the current graduating class – that distinction goes to 78-year-old linguistics student Yee Siong Pang – but he jokes that he's the slowest. 

Ross first enrolled at UBC in 1969, before a love of theatre drew him away and a 35-year career in law kept him away. He returned on a part-time basis in 2017, and he says all of the credits he earned in the '60s and '70s are counting toward his bachelor's degree in history.

When he speaks to CTV News via Zoom on Tuesday, however, it's not what sets him apart from his classmates that he wants to talk about. It's what makes them similar.

They all did a portion of their coursework during the COVID-19 pandemic, missing out on in-person discussions that are vital to the university experience and impossible to replicate on a video call, Ross says.

As a part-time student returning to school after retirement, he had the luxury of being able to scale back his participation, if he wanted to, during the switch to online learning.

He says wants to use his time in the spotlight this week to share his appreciation for what his fellow students – those who continued studying full time during the pandemic – have been through.

"I think they should be commended for sticking to it," he says, recalling how meaningful it was to sit in a classroom again for the first time in the fall semester of 2021.

"The professor of that particular class started to talk and just became extremely emotional just about being able to present, to teach in front of people in that room."

Ross is full of praise for his professors, his classmates and the university itself.

"UBC, in fact, opens the doors to seniors to come back and take courses," he says. "And the students do, as well. There was no point when I was there that I felt, 'Oh, these young people don't really want me in the room.' I found, more often than not, that we got into very interesting conversations, and that I brought something to the conversation and they brought it back to me."

Still, there were some notable ways in which his UBC experience was markedly different from his peers.

About six weeks into his first history course during the spring 2017 semester, he says he realized he had an unusual connection with one of his classmates.

The young woman, it turned out, was the daughter of the first articling student he took on as a lawyer.

"She hadn't even been born when her mother was my student," he says with a laugh.

The subject matter of that course – European history in the first half of the 20th century – was what initially drove Ross to go back to school.

He was fascinated by the senselessness of the First World War, and his curiosity had been piqued by a trip to Europe early in his retirement in the summer of 2016.

"How is it that people kept doing this?" Ross says, explaining the question about the war he hoped to answer in his studies.

"You just can't imagine that people just didn't refuse to fight, didn't refuse to send their children off to fight. And yet, in the millions, they did send them. People did go."

Ross says he arrived at a better understanding of that question and its answers early on in his studies, but his curiosity kept him coming back for more courses on European and Canadian history.

After he walks across the stage at his graduation ceremony on Thursday, he plans to take a break from his academic pursuits, but he's not ruling out taking additional history courses in the future.

"I'm not going to do it right away," he says. "But I can do it because I continue to be curious about these things."

He says it's "unfortunate" that his university narrative isn't more common, and he encourages people his age to take courses and pursue knowledge, and to be open to changing their minds about things they thought they knew.

"I am a different person than I was at the time, in 2017. I am a different person because of the courses that I have taken. I have a completely different perspective on Canadian history than I had going into this whole program." Top Stories

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