LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — Among the roughly 15,000 people who received degrees during USC commencement ceremonies Friday was one notable standout — 96-year-old Alfonso Gonzales.

Gonzales received a bachelor of science degree in zoology, nearly 70 years after he first set foot on the Trojan campus, making him the oldest graduate in USC history.

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According to the university, Gonzales — the first person in his family to attend college — started at USC in 1947 and thought he had graduated a long time ago, although he wasn’t able to attend a graduation ceremony in 1953 due to his job.

Relatives recently approached the university to obtain a copy of his diploma, and they discovered he was actually one unit shy of graduation.

So the university helped out, crafting a one-unit independent study course specifically for Gonzales, including video and reading assignments and visits to gerontology classes. And Gonzales passed with flying colors.

“What he’s doing is setting an incredibly positive example for other adults in America and around the world,” said Pinchas Cohen, dean of the USC Davis School of Gerontology. “He embodies the fact that learning opportunities never stop. People can develop new skills and grow at any age.”

USC no longer offers a degree in zoology, but the university will bestow it upon him anyway.

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A native of Lompoc and a U.S. Marine Corps veteran of World War II, Gonzales started a soil company called Compo-Loam in 1953, while still attending USC. He ran the company for 55 years, retiring in 2008 at age 88.

According to the university, while taking his one-credit course and visiting USC classes, Gonzales spoke to students about the dangers of smoking –a habit he kicked in 1980 — and gave them advice on healthy living, and encouraged them to take advantage of their education.

“Don’t forget that you’re going to be our future leaders,” Gonzales said. “You’re needed in our society. You’ll change America — but don’t change it too much. We’ve got something nice here.”

A series of commencement ceremonies was held on the USC campus, beginning with the main event at 9 a.m. in the Alumni Park area. Oracle Corp. founder and Chairman Larry Ellison, who this week donated $200 million toward the creation of a cancer research institute at USC, was the keynote speaker.

Former Trojan football coach Pete Carroll, now coach of the Seattle Seahawks, spoke at the USC Marshall School of Business ceremony for graduate students.

(©2016 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Wire services contributed to this report.)

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