'Slowest student in the world' finishes UBC degree 54 years after he first enrolled

Arthur Ross is pictured in 1969 when he first enrolled at the University of British Columbia and as he is set to graduate in 2023.  (UBC - image credit)
Arthur Ross is pictured in 1969 when he first enrolled at the University of British Columbia and as he is set to graduate in 2023. (UBC - image credit)

It's not unusual for students to take some time off from their university studies to find themselves before finally graduating.

In the case of Arthur Ross, that time off lasted about five decades.

The 71-year-old is set to accept his bachelor of arts degree at a convocation ceremony at the University of British Columbia on Thursday, 54 years after he first enrolled.

"It makes me sound like the slowest student in the world and I guess that's what I am," Ross told CBC's On the Coast from a family property near Kamloops, B.C.

Ross arrived at UBC's Point Grey campus in 1969, having graduated from nearby Prince of Wales Secondary. It felt like a natural progression as he had family members who were UBC graduates.

He says he started a general arts program, but quickly developed an interest in theatre, taking part in productions at Frederic Wood Theatre.

He left his studies at UBC to attend the National Theatre School of Canada in Montreal. He learned that acting appealed to him; the life of an actor didn't.

He went on to study law in Toronto and spent 35 years as a litigator in B.C.

'One course at a time'

After retiring in 2016, Ross returned to the unfinished matter of his UBC degree.

"It was always one of those things, even as I was practising law, [I was] thinking someday I'll go back and finish that off," he said.

He returned to class in January 2017 with a focus on studying history and completing his final year of studies. He was determined to get his degree, but he was also determined not to rush it.

"The plan always was one course at a time," he said. "I wasn't going to sit down and take five courses all at once."

While UBC's Point Grey campus has changed dramatically over the decades, many of Ross's courses were taught in the Buchanan Building, which he first attended in 1969.

As the years progressed, Ross got to know his young classmates, and was impressed by those who kept going through the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I give full credit to those who stuck it out, who carried on through all that learning at home in difficult situations, not to mention losing out on the experience of university ... This group really persevered and my hats are off to them."

As he gets ready to get "bonked on the head" at a graduation ceremony, Ross says he is grateful for the chance to return to university and the classmates he met along the way.

"They're wonderful," he said. "They're smart. You just feel uplifted by being amongst these young people."

The university's website says tuition is free for seniors depending on the type of program. UBC's website has information for seniors who are considering undergraduate courses.

While Ross will be the "slowest" graduate at UBC, he won't be the oldest. That honour goes to 78-year-old Yee Siong Pang, who is set to receive a bachelor of arts in linguistics — his second UBC degree and his fifth university degree overall.

Ross's 54 years to graduate exceeds the longest time taken to complete a university degree registered with Guinness World Records. The Guinness World Records website cites Robert F.P. Cronin, who began a biology degree at Princeton University in 1948 and graduated in 2000.

According to a 2007 obituary in the Montreal Gazette, Cronin served as the dean of medicine at McGill University. He returned to Princeton at the age of 73 after learning he hadn't actually received a degree due to a technicality.