Hey Joe, where are you going with that degree in your hand?

AT a time when most people are slowing down, Nowra resident Joe Lester is set to embark on a new adventure in his life.

Next week Mr Lester will graduate from University of Wollongong with a bachelor of arts.

Mr Lester has majored in English literature and history and minored in community and environment. And he will graduate with distinctions.

“It’s pretty cool,” he said.

He has spent the past four years undertaking his degree.

Having left school in the 1950s, he completed trades in fitting and machining, toolmaking, motor mechanics and welding.

He admitted he never expected to be going to university, especially in his 70s.

“I was at high school at Parramatta High School so many years ago, and never dreamed of going to uni,” he said.

“I got into trades, worked locally for Wes Madge and Harrison Engine Reconditioning and eventually had my own business.

“And here I am 75 and set to graduate.”

He said he intends to do honours but is going to have a year off.

“I think after years of studying, my wife and my house need me,” he said.

“But my grandkids think it’s great – ‘Pop’s gonna have a gap year!’”

“I honestly don’t know where this may lead – I have a lot of options.

“I could do a post grad in education, I would like to get involved in something, maybe mentoring.”

He is also investigating a two-year IT information and management post graduate course and may even try to become a librarian.

He paid credit to the founder of the University of Wollongong Shoalhaven Campus, the late Dr Ray Cleary, for planting the seed of thought in his mind.

“Going back in history when I was playing rugby, Ray Cleary was always trying to drum up business for the new uni he had started at Berry and he said, ‘You should go back to uni’,” he said.

“We ran Retsel Industries, manufacturing grain augers and feeding systems for farms as well as doing a bit of commercial industrial stuff.

“This has been on the simmer since I sold the business back in 1991, after which I retired.

“Retiring was the worst thing I ever did. Unless you are a keen member of a number of clubs I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.

“I got bored so got a job at Shoalhaven High at the farm as a farmhand and general assistant part-time and then transferred with the Department of Education to Bomaderry Public where I was for 10 years, before retiring again.

“With my wife we travelled a lot, worked on the house and then the GFC struck and we ran out of dough.

“I spent a year mowing lawns, fishing and generally hanging about and got bored again.

“I started thinking about Ray’s suggestion from so many years ago and it all just went from there.”

He initially went back and did his tertiary preparation certificate, TAFE’s version of the HSC and then enrolled in university.

“I suppose it shows even old buggers can get out there and do it,” he said.

“But it is bloody hard work and pretty stressful at times when assignments are due and tests are coming up.

“But it’s been pretty cool and I’m proud of what I have achieved.”

Does he have any advice for fellow “senior students” who might be contemplating trying university?

“The only way to do it is hop in and do it,” he said.

“Sure, I would encourage others to try university but I remind them that it is for young people – it’s there for young people to try to gain qualifications so they can get a career.

“You have got to go into it with an open mind. As you get older you do get set in you ways, you have these set views on politics, sex, gender, age, anything. 

“You have got to chuck that all to one side, particularly in humanity and arts and stuff like that – all those set ideas go out the window and suddenly you think ‘I never looked at it like that before’.

“I also paid most of my own way. I got a little help with a $500 start-up grant that helped with textbooks but I didn’t apply for any scholarships – they are for the kids, they need the funding as they try to gain qualifications.

“Age at university doesn’t matter.

“University is for younger people starting out their careers or people who want to change careers but when you are all suffering the same sort stresses, or doing research together, trying to solve problems together, age doesn’t matter.

“I found I was accepted by the kids and I call anyone under 35 kids.

“Occasionally, I became a mentor. If the younger students got results back or an essay they mightn’t have been happy about they would come up after tutorials and ask to go for a coffee and we would talk about it.”

Along the way, Mr Lester starred in his course, being awarded the Dean’s Merit Award for outstanding academic performance in his subjects for three years in a row, which he said he was “chuffed” about.

And did he frequent the uni bar?

“You bet I did,” he joked.

“If we had to go to Wollongong for dinners, we would head to the uni bar and catch up with my fellow students, have a meal and a couple of drinks. That’s what it’s there for.”

Ironically Mr Lester is graduating the same year as his granddaughter Stephanie, who has done a double degree in psychology and an arts degree and will also be undertaking honours next year.

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