View all news

97-year-old Uni graduate sets world benchmark


Sharlene King
4 May 2012
In a world of almost seven billion people, 97-year-old Southern Cross University graduate Allan Stewart stands alone.

Not only does Allan already hold the Guinness World Records title for being the ‘World’s Oldest Graduate’ – a title he earned after graduating with a law degree aged 91 – but today (Friday May 4) he will surpass it.

Allan will graduate with a Master of Clinical Science (Complementary Medicine) at Southern Cross University’s Lismore campus – gaining his fourth university degree.

“I think I can hang up my mortar board and academic robes after this one – although I said that after my last degree and then I got bored. I have so much time on my hands these days and I like to keep mentally active,” the nonagenarian said.

Allan’s unique achievement has set a phenomenal benchmark in human history.

At the age of 97 years and 58 days the erudite, energetic and exceptionally handsome bachelor, who looks and thinks like a man 30 years younger, will take to the podium to receive his degree and deliver the graduate address.

He promises to regale the crowd with comparisons of ‘then and now’, recounting the many differences he has encountered being a university student in 2012 compared to his university days in the 1930s when he undertook his first degree in dentistry.

It may seem incomprehensible to the casual observer how this man, nearing his 100th year, can still have his intellectual faculties so sharp and finely honed that he can achieve a postgraduate qualification in such an academically rigorous degree.

But wait – there is more! Allan still lives entirely independently in his own home, walks daily around his neighbourhood in the Port Stephens area of NSW, fishes, swims in the sea, cooks delectable meals, grows amazing fruit and veggies in his backyard, acts as a carer to a dear friend, supports the community as an assistant in the local community technology centre and leads an active life giving loving support and advice to his six children (one deceased), 12 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

“Truly, the man is a living legend and such a tremendous inspiration to those who aspire to age well and pursue lifelong learning,” said Dr Sonya Brownie, one of Allan’s supervisors during his two-and-a-half-year Masters degree.

“I have marvelled at Allan’s ability to undertake a rigorous program of study with the level of commitment and enthusiasm that he has demonstrated.

“His willingness to embrace new learning technologies, and his competency using different online learning applications, is truly incredible. It was not unusual for Allan to be the first student to register in the online discussion board forums, or to Skype me to discuss something about the unit.

“He was keen to learn how he could build upon, and improve, his academic skills. He could competently search the online library databases for relevant literature to support a well-balanced argument in his assignments and he always looked for opportunities to focus his assignments on topics that would help him to get more out of life.”

But Allan is extremely modest about his achievements. “Oh, it’s nothing really… I have just been blessed with good genes,” he says almost apologetically.

Allan attributes his remarkable health and vitality to a simple formula – fitness of mind, fitness of body, fitness of purpose, fitness of spirit and social fitness.

To keep his mind active, Allan is always studying. He generally has a medical textbook and a crime novel on the go, plays bridge and researches topics of interest on the internet.

“I chose Southern Cross University because I have always had a passionate interest in the health sciences and natural and complementary medicine and they had the course I wanted,” he said.

“I wanted to apply my knowledge in the area of healthy ageing – both for myself, my family and the wider community. People are always coming to me for advice on how to live longer and healthier lives and now I feel I have some credibility in giving out that advice.

“The other attractive thing was the online learning environment which meant I was able to study from home and yet still have regular personal contact with my lecturers and other students.

“At first I did find it challenging using Skype and interactive online discussion forums but I decided to embrace the new technology wholeheartedly. Now I help others to master the intricacies of the worldwide web as a volunteer at the local community technology centre.”

Allan achieves his physical fitness by going out into the garden first thing every morning and “doing something”. That might be weeding, turning the soil, making a garden bed, planting or picking. He eats from the garden as much as possible and home cooks almost everything. Weather permitting, Allan will go for a walk around his neighbourhood daily. He was swimming in the ocean every day until this summer’s influx of sharks. (“I will get back to it.”) Golf and fishing have been lifelong hobbies.

Fitness of purpose is about having a clearly identified goal every single day. “At this stage of my life I truly live one day at a time,” he said. “I try and have a plan for the day – I think about what I want to achieve on this day and how I will make it happen. It gives me focus and purpose and it is a reason for getting out of the house and doing something. Without clear and achievable goals, life can become meaningless.”

Fitness of spirit is about having a relationship with the Divine. “Call it what you will – nature, God, the Creator, a power greater than ourselves … you just need to connect with that life force in whatever way that is meaningful to you. I meditate regularly and I think that keeps my spirit healthy.”

Social fitness for Allan is about investing time and energy in his relationships: “You need to connect with family, friends and your community. Having a sense of belonging is important. My SCU supervisor Dr Brownie introduced me to the concept of ‘social capital’ and I invest heavily in that at every opportunity. There is evidence that social interaction enhances the ageing body and favourably stimulates brain chemicals.”

Born in Strathfield in 1915, Allan was educated at Sydney University where he graduated with a Bachelor of Dentistry with Honours in 1936. Later he did postgraduate study at Northwestern University in Chicago, gaining a Doctor of Dental Surgery.

He practiced in Coonabarabran in regional NSW, in Balmain, Sydney, in London and in Macquarie Street, Sydney. He was awarded the Inaugural Fellow of the Fellowship of the Australian College of Dental Surgeons.

After retiring to the Port Stephens area and being very involved in community life, Allan decided he needed to keep his mind more active. Having chosen dentistry over law for his undergraduate studies because of family pressure, he decided in his late eighties that it was “now or never” and enrolled in a Bachelor of Laws at UNE.

“As I approached the age of 90 I realised that time was of the essence and I had better get a wriggle-on in case I didn’t make my graduation. So I attended extra summer schools and managed to complete the six-year course in four-and-a-half years, graduating in 2006. Turns out I needn’t have rushed!” he said with a laugh.

“After that I said I would never subject myself to such intense study again, but, well, I got bored and my daughter Anne (then aged 70) was studying for her Bachelor of Arts at Southern Cross University… and they had this Masters degree that I was interested in, so there you have it! In 2009 I enrolled once more and I must say that although it’s been a tremendous challenge, I have enjoyed it immensely and would strongly encourage any older person to go back to study.

“People should never use the excuse that ‘I am too old to study’ or ‘I have left my run too late’. It is never too late to expand your mind, make new friends and challenge yourself to achieve something worthwhile.

“I always say that life is like riding a bicycle. You don’t fall off unless you stop pedalling!”
Photo: Allan Stewart celebrates after receiving his fourth degree, a Master of Clinical Science (Complementary Medicine).