Man completes his sociology Ph.D. at age 90

By: Kathy Hovis,  A&S Communications
October 22, 2015

Back in 1972, Benjamin Franco Suarez was diligently working toward his doctorate in sociology at Cornell, studying the fertility behavior of Bolivian women as part of his work on demography, economic development in developing countries and Latin American studies.

He passed his B exams, but needed money and a job, so he took what he thought would be a short leave of absence to earn some money, planning to return quickly to finish up.

Forty-three years later, Franco Suarez, now 90, received his doctorate in September and was honored at an Oct. 19 campus reception. He spent the last year confirming his results by using correlation analysis on the data he’s been carrying with him for nearly four decades.

“I carried all this data for analysis throughout my job postings, including to places such as Nicaragua, Guatemala, Somalia and then back to the U.S.,” Franco Suarez said. “Encouraged by my son, Ben, by telling me ‘it's never too late,’ in October 2014, I began to analyze the correlations data.”

Franco Suarez studied economics as an undergraduate at Universidad Mayor de San Andres in La Paz, Bolivia. After graduation, he worked at the Social Security Institute in Bolivia and then moved to the U.S., where he worked for the Pan American Union and then the World Health Organization in Washington, D.C.

When he was offered a scholarship for doctoral studies at Cornell in sociology, “I gladly accepted and I registered for the fall semester in 1967,” Franco Suarez said.

Franco Suarez studied the fertility behavior of Bolivian Aymara women, an indigenous ethnic group, who were born and reside in two different environments: the city and the country. The title of his thesis is “Marital Disunion and Fertility among Bolivian Aymara Women in the Process of Cultural Change.”

“He was really on the front line at the time with this research,” said Daniel Lichter, a professor of sociology and policy analysis and management who served on Franco Suarez’s doctoral committee. Franco Suarez’s research focused on the positive impacts that female empowerment, employment and education could have on fertility rates, Lichter said.

“We knew virtually nothing about family choices of indigenous women of the Andes,” said Kim Weeden, professor of sociology and chair of the department, who organized the campus reception. “His work is a record of how these choices were altered by the massive social and economic changes of the 1960s.”

The last requirement for Franco Suarez was to file his thesis with the Graduate School. His son, Ben Franco ’75, MBA ’78, played a major part in the completion of his thesis – retyping the entire 244-page document into a computer so that it could be submitted and bound.

Another person instrumental in Franco Suarez’s degree is Sue Meyer, coordinator of graduate programs for the Department of Sociology. Since the original members of Franco Suarez’s committee had to be replaced, Meyer and the department chair helped him form a new committee and navigate various requirements at the grad school.

“I was so happy to help him as I know this meant so much to him,” Meyer said. “He said it was like Christmas in September for him knowing that he finally has his Ph.D. I am so glad I could be a part of that.”

Kathy Hovis is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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