PICS | We all have a purpose: Pensioner, 80, becomes UJ's oldest graduate in autumn graduation season

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Robert Jeffrey, 80, recently graduated from the University of Johannesburg with a PhD in engineering management.
Robert Jeffrey, 80, recently graduated from the University of Johannesburg with a PhD in engineering management.
University of Johannesburg
  • Robert Jeffrey, 80, recently obtained a PhD in engineering management from the University of Johannesburg (UJ).
  • He also became the oldest graduate of the autumn graduation season at UJ.
  • Losing the use of his legs has not stopped Jeffrey from living life to the fullest.

An 80-year-old grandfather who recently obtained a PhD from the University of Johannesburg said he pursued the degree because he still wanted to have a purpose.

Robert Jeffrey, a cheerful and proud father of eight and grandfather of nine, said he never thought he would do a PhD after retiring a few years ago.

However, he decided to register at UJ, and on Thursday, he was awarded a PhD in engineering management. He is the oldest PhD graduate during UJ's autumn graduation season.

Jeffrey, who also has degrees from Cambridge, Wits and Stellenbosch universities, said he had much to share with the world about the energy sector.

"I have been working on energy for years and believe we get some of it incorrect. I should put it in writing because I've gathered much knowledge and information over the years. I thought it would be worthwhile to get a doctorate," said Jeffrey.

Jeffrey started his PhD studies in 2018 and submitted his thesis in 2022.

Finding out that his thesis was accepted was the best birthday gift, he said.

Jeffrey added:

I had a lovely birthday gift last year (2022), probably the best I've had in a long time. I turned 80 on 30 October and got a response from the university five days later, on 4 November, that I've been awarded a doctorate.

His experience extends to multiple industries, including mathematics, statistics, teaching, finance, economics, and energy, to name a few.

"I started with a BSc in mathematical statistics and applied maths. I then got a scholarship to the University of Cambridge, where I completed a teaching diploma. I was then offered a teaching position at university level, but instead, I decided I would join a financial institution.

"From there, I was offered a position at an engineering construction company building a part of Sasol. In the end, I became a managing director of a global engineering company, where we built several power stations. I was very much involved in the energy industry," said Jeffrey.

He said his family was his greatest support.

Robert Jeffrey with wife Carol Ann Jeffrey.
Robert Jeffrey and his wife, Carol Ann.
Rob Jeffrey with his family at his graduation.
Robert Jeffrey, 80, recently graduated from the University of Johannesburg with a PhD in engineering management.

"Being my age, I've had fantastic support from my wife, Carol Ann, and children during my years of study. They've kept me motivated, affirmed me and pushed me to do better," he added.

Over the years, Jeffrey suffered from peripheral neuropathy. He is unable to use his legs and has been using a wheelchair. As a youngster, peripheral neuropathy forced him to stop his active lifestyle.

Jeffrey said:

I've lost the use of my legs. I used to be a sportsman, playing junior provincial rugby. I was an athletics captain, and I did rowing, played tennis and golf. I've been active in sports for many years. Unfortunately, it all came to an end due to a particular peripheral neuropathy.

However, being in a wheelchair permanently has not stopped Jeffrey from living life to the fullest and getting the best out of it through different interests.

Among Jeffrey's many interests, international politics and economics rank highly, followed by astronomy.

While pursuing a PhD was not something he did for his career, Jeffrey said he did so to share his knowledge with people and make them aware of the country's energy crisis.

"I have experience in finance, economics and running big companies. I wanted to put that experience down and use the knowledge I've gained. I've worked as an independent energy and economic consultant and have a rich history. I wanted to share that with people. I knew what I wanted to say. I had certain beliefs, and it was important to let people know," Jeffrey said.

Robert Jeffrey conferred by VC Letlhokwa Mpedi, at
A PhD in engineering management has been conferred on Robert Jeffrey by University of Johannesburg vice-chancellor Letlhokwa Mpedi.
Rob Jeffrey
Robert Jeffrey

Ahead of his graduation, Jeffrey sounded excited, jokingly saying he doubted that there would be other 80-year-olds walking the stage with him.

"I admire all university students who have succeeded in achieving their academic goals. This country has a great need to improve its education and qualified people. One must remember that there's not only the academic side; we must strengthen our technology through skills training," he added.

Jeffrey said he was blessed that his wife and children attended his graduation.

"I can only hope to inspire those who think they don't have a purpose because we all have one, regardless of our age," he said.

Jeffrey has been retired for more than seven years but is a part-time consultant.

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