One Trojan has taken the adage “better late than never” to a whole new level.

For more than six decades, Alfonso Gonzales thought that he had graduated from USC with a bachelor’s degree in zoology. But when his family members approached the university about getting a copy of his diploma, they were met with surprising news: He was one unit short.

Gonzales wasn’t about to let technicalities—his age of 96 and the fact that the zoology major no longer exists at USC—stop him from getting the degree he had worked so hard for in the 1940s.


To help, USC administrators created a one-unit course that was as substantive as any other USC class but was tailored to Gonzales’ life experiences and needs as an older student. They also reopened the zoology major for him.

Aaron Hagedorn, an instructional assistant professor in the USC Davis School of Gerontology, met with Gonzales weekly to study autobiographies, give reading and video assignments and arrange visits to other gerontology classes. Hagedorn found his diligent student always prepared and enthusiastic for class.

“Teaching Alfonso was a great demonstration of the principles of andragogy, also known as adult learning theory, in creating a learning environment that was based on his life experiences,” Hagedorn says. Gonzales passed the class and attended commencement in May.

Born in 1920, Gonzales grew up in Hermosa Beach and joined the Navy in 1942. Two years later he transferred to the Marine Corps, where he received field medicine training, and he treated wounded on the battlefield as part of World War II’s largest amphibious assault in the Pacific.

Discharged in November 1945, Gonzales returned to California. He was the first in his family to attend college and majored in zoology at USC in hopes of applying to medical school. But his career goals changed and he started Compo-Loam, a company that offered a proprietary planting soil mix. He worked at his family business until retiring at age 88.

Finishing his degree with the course in guided autobiography not only provided Gonzales with more insight about how to share his story with others, but also gave him even more happy memories, he says.

“I enjoyed coming to USC, and I enjoyed the atmosphere of knowledge,” he says. “Knowledge is intrinsic, and that can never be taken away from you.”

Gonzales is the eldest member of a family with five living generations and his intelligence and determination inspire his family members, says Gonzales’ grandniece Dorinda Geddes. “My uncle has always been a very remarkable and special man,” she says. “He is a role model for all of us.”

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