Aug 10, 2020

96 and achieving dreams: meet Italy’s oldest graduate

Attending university as a mature aged student may seem like a pipedream for some. For others it’s just another part of their everyday lives. For Giuseppe Paternò, it was a dream come true. 

Growing up in Sicily in the 1930s, Paternò had always dreamed of attending university, but a world war, poverty and the need to support a family put that dream on hold. But now, almost 100 years later, Giuseppe Paternò has finally achieved that dream, and in the process has become Italy’s oldest graduate. 

“Being able to study has always been my greatest aspiration, but my family wasn’t able to pay for my education. We were a large family and very poor.

“I’ve finally realised my dream.” 

Having worked alongside his father in a brewery from the time he was a child, Paternò always put the needs of his family ahead of his desire to pursue higher education. In 1943 when the allied forces landed in Sicily, Paternò was working as a telegrapher for the Italian army in Trapani.

“I came out unscathed from the war and took a job working for the state railway service. I wasn’t enthused about my job, but I knew I had to do it because by that time I was married and had a family to support. At the same time, I had an overwhelming desire to dive into books and read, study and learn.”

At 31, Paternò began taking night classes to graduate high school as a surveyor. “During the day, I’d work. In the evening I’d attend school, and at night I’d study,” he said. 

Finally, in 2017 in his early 90s, Paternò enrolled as a student at the University of Palermo, undertaking a degree in philosophy. 

“I’d wake up at seven to study,” he said. “I’d use an old typewriter to complete my assignments. I’d rest in the afternoon and in the evening I’d study until midnight.”

Finally, when COVID-19 hit Italy, it looked like Paternò’s dreams of graduating were at risk. His son Ninni Paternò, with fears for his health, suggested postponing final exams and sitting in the Autumn semester. “But he said no. He said that, given his advanced age, he feared he wouldn’t make it through the summer.”

As of last Friday, Giuseppe Paternò graduated with first-class honours from the University of Palermo school of philosophy. “It’s one of the happiest days of my entire life,” he said. “I only wish my wife were here to see me. She died 14 years ago.”

As for what’s coming next? “I’m considering carrying on for a master’s degree. My mother lived to be 100. If the numbers and the genetics are on my side, then I still have four years left.”

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