• Mario Vargas Llosa
  • Ron Rivera
  • Karl-Anthony Towns
  • Lin-Manuel Miranda
  • Alfonzo Gonzales
  • Jose Miguel Sokoloff
  • Carmelo Anthony
  • Adriano Espaillat

By Jessica Rodriguez

For six decades, Alfonso “Ponchie” Gonzales considered himself a University of Southern California alumnus. Sure he’d skipped his graduation ceremony in 1953 because of work obligations, but he’d finished all of the courses he needed to take to earn a Bachelor of Science in Zoology. Or so believed.

No ceremony, no diploma, no big deal to Ponchie, a retired landscaper who looks like someone’s kind abuelito. When his family contacted USC and requested a copy of his degree, they found out there was no parchment paper to give. It turns out that Gonzales was just one unit shy of finishing his Bachelors. USC administrators gave him a unique opportunity and customized a course that addressed his age and life experiences at the School of Gerontology. The opportunity to finish what he started 65 years earlier wasn’t lost on him either. He saw the chance to return as a nonagenarian more like a golden opportunity. “He just said, ‘I’ll do whatever USC says I need to do to get my degree,’” explained his nephew Mario Gonzales to USC.com.

When he returned to campus, sporting the same black hat and leather bag he’d used when he used to attend classes, he didn’t have a typical experience. Rather than sitting in a weekly lecture or writing endless papers, Ponchie spent the spring 2016 semester completing reading and video assignments and visiting other Gerontology class students to talk about the life he’s lived.

And what a long and colorful life it’s been. Alfonso Gonzales, a Mexican American World War II veteran, has more staying power than most. Born in Lompoc, California in 1920 he was raised and still lives in Hermosa Beach in the same house he’s been in since he was 18. In 1942, Gonzales joined the Navy and trained to be a medic, which sparked his interest in becoming a doctor. He even tended to wounded soldiers on the battlefront after transferring to the Marines and being deployed to Japan in 1945.

After being discharged that same year, Gonzales returned to California and began attending junior college before transferring to USC in 1947. Although he was a Zoology major he had pre-med aspirations and studied anatomy, biology and botany. By his senior year life interrupted and medical school was no longer calling him. During this time Gonzales started a soil company, Compo-Loam, using what he’d learned in his science classes and applied it to his business. Most would say it was a wise decision. Gonzales grew and ran his business until he retired in 2008.

“He embodies the fact that learning opportunities never stop; people can develop new skills and grow at any age,” said Pinchas Cohen, Dean of the School of Gerontology. “He is a living testament that where there is a will, there is a way.”

Not only did he earn his degree, but also he made history by becoming USC’s oldest graduate when he accepted his diploma at 96 years old in May 2016.
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“It took me 65 years to complete my studies but I did,” Gonzales said to a local Los Angeles TV reporter after his graduation ceremony. He is used to setting these kinds of records. Gonzales was the first in his family to go to college. But what’s in your head is priceless, no matter how old you are. “Knowledge is intrinsic, and that can never be taken away from you,” Gonzales said. We couldn’t agree more.

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