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Varathaledchumy Shanmuganathan, known as Varatha, is among more than 4,000 resilient students — some young enough to be her grandchildren — who will celebrate their graduation during York University’s virtual fall convocation tomorrow.
It is an extra-special occasion for both York and Shanmuganathan, as she earns the distinction of becoming the oldest person to receive a master’s degree from the University — and one of the oldest women to obtain a graduate degree from a Canadian university.
Born in Velanai, a small village in Velanai Island off the coast of Jaffna Peninsula in northern Sri Lanka, Shanmuganathan has lived in and taught in four continents, though her education could have very well ended before entering the postsecondary education system. Despite passing with distinction in intermediate-level schooling, she was unable to continue higher studies in her native land because there were limited seats available for ethnic-and-gender-minority students at that time.
“One of my teachers advised my parents to send me abroad for college education. So, they sent me to India,” says Shanmuganathan, who got her bachelor’s degree from University of Madras, in Tamil Nadu state. Upon returning to Sri Lanka, she taught Indian history and English at a local school, and eventually received a diploma in education from Ceylon University. However, her ambition to study further came to a pause when her father became ill and she had to take care of the family’s affairs. She then got married to a teacher and they moved out of Sri Lanka, seeking better opportunities.
Fast forward, Shanmuganathan immigrated to Canada in 2004 — via Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and the United Kingdom — when her daughter sponsored her. It’s no surprise that her quest for acquiring further knowledge was rekindled when she heard from a relative about York’s tuition waiver incentive for seniors. Encouraged by her daughter who is an MBA graduate from York’s Schulich School of Business, Shanmuganathan applied to join the master’s program in political science.
Shanmuganathan submitted a compelling statement of interest for returning to grad school as a student after more than 30 years. The statement starts like this: “My interest in politics is something that I grew up with as World War II started when I was five years old in Ceylon, later named Sri Lanka. I understood the impact that war and violence involving multiple nations can have across oceans.”
At age 85, she was accepted into the program in the Fall/Winter 2019 session. “It was a great change for me to go into the campus, walking in hallways, reading at the library … and do things like youngsters. I loved it!” she says. “Every time I was on campus, it felt like I was in a temple. Very peaceful and rejuvenating.”
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