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Olive Bryanton, 82, to receive PhD today at UPEI convocation

Olive Bryanton, 82, will be the oldest student to ever receive a PhD from UPEI when she crosses the stage at today’s convocation.
Olive Bryanton, 82, will be the oldest student to ever receive a PhD from UPEI when she crosses the stage at today’s convocation. - Contributed

Age has never slowed down Olive Bryanton in her pursuit of higher learning.

At 82 years old, the Hampshire resident will walk across the stage at today’s UPEI convocation to receive her PhD in education. She will also break a barrier by becoming the school’s oldest-ever PhD recipient.

“I am excited it’s finally happening,” said Bryanton in her Hampshire home. “It was a lot of work, way more work than I anticipated.”

The hard work of 940 graduates, including Bryanton, will pay off when they receive their degrees today and tomorrow.

Bryanton said she’s always had a thirst for knowledge, and her educational journey began long before her fellow graduates.

It started with a one-year practical nurse course offered at the Hillsborough Hospital in the late 1960s (she couldn’t afford to take the four-year program at the time).

“I am excited it’s finally happening ... It was a lot of work, way more work than I anticipated.”

- Olive Bryanton

She later enrolled at UPEI in 1980, when the youngest of her five children was 14 years old, and graduated with a bachelor of sociology with a minor in Canadian studies.

“That was the start, so to speak,” said Bryanton, who then worked with non-profits for a number of years before being offered a job at UPEI’s Centre on Health and Aging.

Being surrounded by campus life gave Bryanton the feeling that she “should” be studying, which resulted in her re-enrolling and ultimately earning her master of education in 2009.

“While on campus, I just felt I wanted to know more. I enjoy research, but even at the end of my masters I still didn’t feel that I was a true researcher,” said Bryanton, who was later accepted to the PhD program in 2013.

Her PhD work also focused on a topic near to her heart. With a group of 10 women participants from rural communities across P.E.I., between 85 to 92 years of age, Bryanton studied their living realities and what supports or limits their ability to continue living in rural P.E.I.

One of the main takeaways from her work, which she is currently in the process of getting published in an international journal, was that all the participants were still very involved in their communities through a variety of groups.

“It surprised me how active that age group was … they were amazing,” said Bryanton, adding that they all sometimes relied on family members living nearby.

“That was really important to them ... and it wasn’t just the family members contributing to them, (the women) were also contributing to the family. So, there was much reciprocity happening.”

“The Faculty of Education at UPEI is very proud of Olive’s critically important research. Canada’s aging population needs are not being met, especially in rural contexts.”

- Ron MacDonald, dean, faculty of education

Bryanton thanked her own family, as well as the many colleagues she’s met along the way, for helping in her pursuit. She especially thanked “Team Olive” who had supported her throughout her study.

Her research, as well as Bryanton’s own journey, shows people should look at seniors as contributors to society regardless of their age.

“Instead of looking at older adults as vulnerable and needy, we need to look at what strengths they have and build on those strengths,” said Bryanton, whose research has already led to changes in the province.

Former Family and Human Services Minister Tina Mundy cited Bryanton’s research as one of the motivations behind a seniors independence program when it was announced last year.

Bryanton’s age will not be the only “first” for UPEI when she receives her degree.

Because of her long-time advocacy for seniors, including work with the P.E.I. Seniors Federation, founding the Voice for Island Seniors newspaper, the Seniors Active Living Centre in Charlottetown and the Seniors College, Bryanton received an honorary doctorate in law degree from UPEI in 2000.

She will now be the first person to follow up her honorary degree from UPEI by earning her own PhD through research. She noted that some around campus have joked with her about whether they should now refer to her as “Dr. Dr. Bryanton.”

“What a joy it was to guide Olive, a senior herself, developing timely research for our aging societies by giving voice to women 85 and older who find ways to contribute to their families and communities.”

- Liz Townsend, co-supervisor, faculty of education

While earning the PhD is a milestone, Bryanton is still nowhere near slowing down.

Next month, she will be starting a new research job at UPEI and still plans to attend conferences and other academic trips where she can share her research.

With her passion for travelling being hindered in the past two years while she finished her PhD, Bryanton is also planning an upcoming trip to Vietnam.

Throughout her educational journey, Bryanton said she has been approached by numerous seniors who expressed an interest in returning to school. However, in “a society full of ageism”, many were also scared or nervous that they were too old.

She disagrees. She also hopes her graduation is followed by more seniors walking across the stage at UPEI.

“In reality, age is not a factor. It’s whether you want to do it,” said Bryanton. “If you really want to do it, go and do it. You’ll never regret it.”

RELATED: Information about convocation week at UPEI

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