59-year-old Ph.D. graduate exemplifies 'lifelong learning'

It’s never too late to go back to school, and no one knows that better than 59-year-old Ben Rogers of Chattanooga, who earns a Ph.D. in environmental sciences tomorrow at Tennessee Tech University.

" I believe that the more you learn, the younger you actually feel," he said.

Possibly TTU’s oldest doctoral student, Rogers began his path in lifelong learning in 1960, when he enrolled in the chemistry program at Memphis State University. Along the way, a co-op assignment with the Tennessee Valley Authority turned into a full-time position; by 1965, he was working as a start-up chemist at TVA’s Bull Run Steam Plant at Oak Ridge.

Facing an impending draft into military service during the Vietnam conflict the following year, however, Rogers enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, where he served for four years. He used the G. I. Bill to return to Memphis State in 1970 and worked as a professional guitarist, performing in local television and radio commercials before graduating in 1972.

From there, it was back to TVA as a radioactive waste operations manager — first at the Brown’s Ferry Nuclear Power Plant and then at the Sequoyah Nuclear Power Plant.

Although he would’ve liked to pursue graduate studies, career opportunities kept arising — and those opportunities enhanced his eventual doctoral studies at TTU. Although his career delayed his return to school, it also laid a secure foundation for his doctoral research.

In 1982, Rogers became an independent consultant and moved with his family to Johannesburg, South Africa, where he had a two-year contract with the South African Electricity Supply Commission.

After returning to the U.S., he started Nuclear Waste Management Inc., an organization focusing on remediation work — cleaning up radioactive or hazardous materials resulting from spills or industrial activities. As a private consultant, he also researched and drafted the definitive document for the U.S. Department of Energy about alternate waste disposal.

Rogers enrolled in TTU’s environmental sciences doctoral program in January 2000.

" I did it because I could," he said. "It’s something I’d actually wanted to do for about 10 years. When my oldest daughter showed me an ad she’d found for TTU’s program, I called and visited the university within a matter of days and enrolled the following semester."

Rogers’ professional experience enriched the research that would ultimately lead to his dissertation, said TTU faculty adviser and chemistry professor Dale Ensor.

" When he first came here, he was interested in seeing whether he could work the program into what he was already doing," Ensor said. "That’s one important thing we’ve learned along the way with graduate studies — we can’t teach the way we always have because we’re dealing with non-traditional students, so we modified the times when we offered those courses."

That flexibility helped Rogers juggle doctoral studies with his career.

After graduation, Rogers says he plans to continue consulting. For the past four years, he’s served as senior environmental adviser to Professional Project Services of Oak Ridge. And a 2001 appointment to a 14-member review panel for a nuclear reactor has enabled him to once again work in South Africa.

As for his short-term goals, Rogers says he’s looking forward to his 60th birthday on June 14. "Now I’ve made the grade — next I’ll celebrate my birthday," he said.

And he says he hopes his own experience can serve as an example to other "non-traditional" students considering the possibility of earning a college degree.

" My philosophy is that time passes anyway, regardless of how you decide to use it, so you might as well use it to try to do something worthwhile," Rogers said.
Apply Now