“It’s unfinished business,” Ross, now 71, remembered thinking in 2016. “Let’s see what happens, one course at a time.”
On Thursday, Ross had his answer. He walked onstage in cap and gown to receive a bachelor’s degree 54 years in the making, making him one of the slowest degree-earners in the world.
Ross doesn’t mind the distinction. He was thrilled to rekindle — and properly wrap up — his time as a student, he told The Washington Post.
“I hope other people, those who are thinking about doing this, I hope they do realize it’s possible to do this,” Ross said. “And it’s super enjoyable.”
Ross grew up in Vancouver, B.C., close to the University of British Columbia, and several family members had graduated from there before him. Going there after high school felt like a natural step, he said, even though he didn’t have a career goal in mind. Ross enrolled in 1969 and took classes in English before discovering he had a passion for acting.
“For most young people who get the acting bug, it is a bug you cannot let go,” Ross recalled. So he left the university after two years to enroll in a Montreal theater school, leaving an unfinished transcript behind.
But after three years in theater school, Ross said he found acting to be too taxing of a pursuit. He pivoted once more to law, which required him to re-enroll at the University of British Columbia for a year to complete the three college years required to qualify for law school in Canada. Then he left Vancouver again — undergraduate degree still incomplete — for the University of Toronto’s law school.
Law school did end up giving Ross a diploma, and a decades-long career. He didn’t think much about the undergraduate degree he’d left unfinished until he retired in 2016. Ross, a history enthusiast, said that watching a German opera rekindled curiosities about European society before the First World War. He wanted to learn and discuss. So he picked up the phone and called the University of British Columbia to ask about enrolling part-time so he could sit in on a European history class.
In January 2017, Ross found himself back at school, on a campus that looked different from what he remembered. Ross had changed, too. He had to stop himself at times, he said, from speaking too much in discussion sections and bringing his trial lawyer experience to bear — “I had to learn to keep my mouth shut!” — but said that classmates and professors were supportive when he shared his unusual story.
“Maybe they were surprised about all of that, but I think they were just welcoming,” Ross said.
One part-time class led to another, and Ross eventually decided he’d commit to finishing his degree. Luckily, he realized he’d only need to take history classes to fulfill the requirements for a Bachelor of Arts degree and a history major.
Ross chipped away at his course load slowly. His matriculation was delayed once more by covid-19. Frustrated by online classes, he took another year off in 2021 and watched sympathetically as the pandemic disrupted the lives of the rest of the student body.
“I really applaud them for sticking with it through some difficult times in order to now graduate and move on,” Ross said. “They are the ones, far more than me, they’re the ones who deserve credit.”
Ross completed his final class, a historiography of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe, in December. All that was left was to receive his diploma in the university’s May graduation ceremony. His family and children were in attendance Thursday when he finally received his Bachelor of Arts degree. Ross plans to frame it alongside his law certificates.
Ross’s graduation might even land him in the record books. The 54 years he spent earning his degree, from enrollment to matriculation, just surpasses the Guinness World Records listing for the longest time taken to complete a degree, 52 years, CBC Radio Canada noted.
Guinness World Records did not respond to a request for comment from The Post. Ross, for one, thinks some of his graduating peers deserve more credit than him.
“I’m thinking of all these PhD students who are also getting their doctorate, who have probably done amazing research in some field, and I’m just an anomaly who happened to take a long time to get a degree,” Ross chuckled. “It’s a bit disproportionate. But I’ll take it.”
Ross enjoyed his last day as a college student after his graduation ceremony, cycling to a celebratory dinner with his family where he kept his graduation cap on.
He’ll return to retirement, though he might have a challenger for his record soon. Ross’s wife, Anne Clark, who also left college early to transfer to law school, has since teased the idea of returning to complete her undergraduate degree, he said.
“Now she’s threatening to go back to university, and take even longer than it took me, to get her Bachelor of Arts,” Ross laughed. “More power to her if she does that.”