Fill Me In
When faced with old age, there probably aren’t many people who’d consider a PhD being a necessity. This is particularly so in a country like Singapore, where educational achievements are deeply pinned to achieving material progression in life.
But here’s a story of the world’s oldest PhD student. He is so old that he’s lived through the world’s worst times: flying locusts, COVID-19, and before 2020, he lived through war, famine, and poverty, among other things.
The registered record-holder is a 104-year-old who just submitted his PhD thesis, after first embarking on it at the University of Manchester 77 years ago. The secrets that he attributes to his successful educational pursuits are also the same ones that many regard to be the secrets to living long lives. And to a very large extent, it’s no surprise.
Taking a page out of his book
The exemplary 104-year-old man who submitted his PhD in October this year decided to pursue it even after having a successful lifelong career as an engineer. The man from Medellin, Colombia goes by Lucio Chiquito, and a name that many might find recognisable. Mr Chiquito is the co-founder of Colombia’s largest energy company, and is definitely not a man who needs a PhD. According to Mr Chiquito himself, he’s never once stopped working.
The vigour-filled man had spent years on his thesis and doctoral studies trying to solve a problem that he’d faced throughout his career as an engineer. While the world crumbled and grew around Mr Chiquito during COVID-19, it was the pandemic that inspired a solution to what he’d been pondering in relation to his work on rivers and streams.
Mr Chiquito’s nodus was about identifying how water could be most efficiently extracted from a river. He hopes that his PhD work will enable the use of hydroelectric power and irrigation products to contribute to more efficient water usage.
It’s in purposeful action
When asked how he has lived such a long life, where he remains in good health, Mr Chiquito shared advice that was simple and brimming with heart. “I eat a lot of fruit. I shower with cold water,” he said, smoothing his fingers over a wrinkle-free face in a BBC Reel video.
Part of his daily routine includes keeping active, and in the morning, walking and stopping by a river to pray and to reflect. When Mr Chiquito isn’t reading, he’s studying or “doing something like it”.
In the video, Mr Chiquito’s granddaughter quotes him imparting knowledge to his great-granddaughter that can only really be learnt over the course of time and wisdom. “Your dreams – you have to work for them, because they don’t come true out of thin air,” he shared.
Mr Chiquito’s PhD is a labour of love and his life’s work, with a hefty 77 years spent on it. If anything, it goes to show that there’s plenty more to an education than climbing corporate ladders. In this instance, it is testament to how learning, at its heart, is to better the world at large.
Screw PhDs… I’m afraid I’m too old to get a degree
Another man who’s embarked on a path that’s similar to Mr Chiquito’s is Mr Giussepe Paterno, who’s the oldest person to have graduated in Italy, at the age of 96. Mr Paterno enrolled for a degree in History and Philosophy at the University of Palermo when he was 90 years old, in 2014. He graduated with first-class honours in Philosophy.
Unlike many of us, Mr Paterno had not had the privilege of pursuing an education in his youth. He was previously a railroad worker and had faced many tests in his life, from childhood poverty to war. He had received a basic childhood education and then joined the Navy to serve in World War II. After that, he weathered on in a society that was focused on rebuilding after the war, prioritising family-building and working to get by.
“Knowledge is like a suitcase that I carry with me, it is a treasure,” Mr Paterno said.
His desire for knowledge was never extinguished, despite the hardships he faced. According to him, he had never been tempted by the parties of his classmates, aged just above 20 – though we don’t know how much of a part his age had to play with that.
Be strong, be brave, be persistent, and do your thing
You don’t need to be young or spry to change the world. Hell, you don’t even need a PhD. Mr Giuessepe Paterno and Mr Lucio Chiquito’s lives tell us that no moment in life is too late to reach for our goals, as long as your passion burns on. With the internet making it easier for us all to be pioneers of digital change, there are ways other than academia for younger generations to make an actionable impact, and they all serve various functions.
As a great man called Socrates once said, “the secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new”. And it’s not the ancient Greek philosopher I’m quoting, but a character from Way of the the Peaceful Warrior.