Convocation spotlight: Stewart Holmes (Department of History, Classics and Religion)

Caitlin Crawshaw - 23 May 2023

More than forty years ago, Stewart Holmes looked at his bank account before he planned to start university and came to a grim conclusion.

“I wasn’t going to make it through the school year,” he says. He’d wanted badly to study history, but without the funds, he needed a gap year or two to work full-time and save the money.

He soon secured a job at an insurance office and found he liked the bookkeeping aspect of the business. Seeing an opportunity to build a stable career in financial management, he enrolled at a technical college to study accounting and took night courses to eventually earn his professional accounting designation.

Before he knew it, a decade had gone by and Holmes had taken a very different path than the one he’d planned at 18. 

“Family, marriage, kids, a house, and a mortgage came along and, well, you know the story,” he laughs. 

As life went on, the family made two cross-country moves, first from BC to St. John’s, NL — where his wife secured a nursing degree — and then to Edmonton, AB, where they would lay roots.

But Holmes’ desire to study history and earn a university degree didn’t fade. In 2004, with the encouragement of his three sons —  who all earned degrees from the U of A — he enrolled in the University’s Open Studies program and began casually taking undergraduate social sciences and humanities courses. Finally able to scratch his higher-education itch, Holmes decided to officially go back to school after retiring. In 2017, he became a full-time Arts student with a history major.

Being a retiree while pursuing an undergraduate degree came with certain advantages. Unlike many of his classmates, Holmes did not need to juggle schoolwork with a job or parenting, and his greater life experience gave him a different perspective on history.

Holmes recalls a class discussion in which a classmate mentioned a historical event from the 1970s as an example of current history, but the teacher insisted it had happened too long ago. “I sort of looked at her and said, ‘That’s my current history!’”  

Although his life experience provides certain insights, Holmes quickly notes that he’s learned a great deal from students far younger than him. 

“They have a much different perspective — a fresher perspective,” he says. “As older people, we tend to get stuck in our ways sometimes and forget that things have changed or things can change or that there are different ways of doing things.”

While completing his degree, Holmes marveled at the depth and breadth of his chosen discipline, and his academic interests evolved. He’d planned to focus on European history — perhaps the Habsburg dynasty — but gravitated to Islamic history, instead. In fact, he may focus on this area of history when he begins a master of arts in history at the U of A this fall. He’s chosen the thesis route at the advice of two of his sons, who earned master’s degrees in engineering and digital humanities.

Before starting that next chapter in his academic pursuits, Holmes will convocate with the bachelor’s degree he’d first set his sights on more than 40 years ago.  

“You know how they say ‘Life is a marathon and not a sprint?’ You can say the same thing about learning,” he says.


The 2023 Arts convocation ceremony will be held on Wednesday, June 7 at the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium. See here for more information.