British Columbia

Meet the oldest and youngest students at UBC this year

It has been said that if a person develops a passion for learning, they will never cease to grow. That seems to be the case for two new students at the University of British Columbia this year, despite the 60 years between them. 

Katja Nell and Murray Forbes may be 60 years apart, but they share one important trait

At 75, Murray Forbes, left, is the University of British Columbia's oldest student while Katja Nell, 15, is the youngest. (Murray Forbes/Katja Nell)

It has been said that if a person develops a passion for learning, they will never cease to grow. 

That seems to be the case for two new undergraduate students at the University of British Columbia this year, despite the 60 years between them. 

Katja Nell, 15, and Murray Forbes, 75, both started studying at UBC this month. Nell is at the Vancouver campus, enrolled in the university's intensive Science One program, and Forbes is in the mechanical engineering program at the Okanagan campus in Kelowna.

They share one trait: a lifelong dedication to learning and education. 

"I hate sitting around and not learning new things," said Nell, rushing between classes. "I couldn't deal with just sitting around being bored all the time."

Forbes offered a similar refrain:

"I would just have an awful lot of time to fill, and I'm afraid my wife would find far too many things for me to do around the house," he said over the phone from his home in the Okanagan. 

Although both students share a love for learning, how they came to their current circumstances differs substantially. 

'I couldn't deal with Grade 8'

Nell was born in South Africa and moved to the Lower Mainland when she was about five.

She was in a Grade 6/7 split class for gifted students when she and her friends decided that she should skip a grade so they could all start high school together in Grade 8. 

But Nell says she was still "incredibly bored" in Grade 8, so she spoke to her school counsellor and they decided she should leapfrog another two grades. 

Katja Nell skipped three grades of high school to become the University of British Columbia's youngest student.

"It was hard to make friends at first," she said about Grade 10. "People thought, like, 'Oh, we don't want to talk to this tiny 12-year-old.'"

But within weeks, she settled in. 

At university, one of Nell's biggest social challenges is her curfew — because she's only 15, her parents expect her to be home by 9 p.m.

As for her classes, Nell says she's been enjoying them so far — especially chemistry, because it's the hardest.

"It's definitely busy. It is a heavy workload but I kind of expected it," she said. 

She hopes to get into physics and astronomy next year. As for a career, she's thinking of getting into particle physics so she can study at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research.

'I enjoy it'

Life worked out quite differently for Forbes. 

The septuagenarian grew up in B.C., but moved to Australia to live on a cattle ranch with his parents when he was eight. Forbes has lived across B.C., the U.S., and also in Papua New Guinea. 

When he was young, he intended to get an aeronautical engineering degree, but life — and math — got in the way. 

Along the way he worked for an avionics company, and started his own company fixing and modifying aircraft, among other jobs. 

"I've always wanted to know what makes things work. That's just always been me," he said. 

Murray Forbes fixed aircraft for a good portion of his career. (Murray Forbes)

Forbes continued to learn — often by distance education, sometimes in college — earning diplomas and certificates along the way. 

Three years ago, he decided it was time to finally earn that degree, which he intended to use to start a consulting business.

He has since realized he'll be more than 80 years old by time he's done and he probably won't get a chance to use it. But he intends to forge on anyway.

"I enjoy it," he said. "I'm in good health, and I would probably shrivel up and die if I didn't have something worthwhile to do." 

Forbes says he also enjoys being on campus, making new friends from all over the world, and being "with all the young people."

About the Author

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.

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