York U Class of 2021: A pandemic can’t keep this Tamil grandma from graduating

Varathaledchumy Shanmuganathan
Varathaledchumy Shanmuganathan

Varathaledchumy Shanmuganathan, known as Varatha, is among the more than 4,000 resilient students, some young enough to be her grandchildren, who celebrated their graduation during York University’s virtual fall convocation on Nov. 2.

This story has been corrected. Shanmuganathan is in fact 87 years young!

It was a very special occasion for both York and Shanmuganathan, because she earned the distinction of becoming the oldest person to receive a master’s degree from the University. She’s also one of the oldest women to obtain a graduate degree from a Canadian university.

Born in Velanai, a small village on 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 post-secondary 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,” said Shanmuganathan, who earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Madras in Tamil Nadu state. After returning to Sri Lanka, she taught Indian history and English at a local school and eventually received a diploma in education from Ceylon University. 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 to seek better opportunities.

In 2004, Shanmuganathan immigrated to Canada via Ethiopia, Sierra Leon, Nigeria and the United Kingdom after her daughter sponsored her. Her quest for acquiring further knowledge was rekindled when she heard from a relative about York University’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 the master’s program in political science.

Shanmuganathan submitted a compelling statement of interest for returning to grad school as a student after nearly 40 years. The statement starts, “My interested 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 said. “Every time I was on campus, it felt like I was in a temple. Very peaceful and rejuvenating.”

The resident of Vaughan, Ont., also quips about how the cab drivers and others she encountered during her commute to the campus thought she was a professor at York and were surprised when they learned she was a student. “I was very proud to tell them I was indeed a student. I believe in lifelong learning for seniors, educating themselves beyond conventional limits placed on them in society,” said Shanmuganathan.

She completed her first master’s degree in her mid-50s at the University of London’s Birkbeck College, where she taught English and economics, before finding a niche in teaching English as a second language. While her first master’s was on the attitudes of Sri Lankan Tamils in England towards language, partially driven by the community’s need to belong in new cultures and political situations, for the York degree, she chose to study non-violence for national peace building and reconciliation in Sri Lanka.

“I grew up in the time when Mahatma Gandhi led India’s independence. In my teenage years, Gandhi’s ideas and teachings as to how non-violent methods could be adopted in politics, in theory and practice impressed me very much,” she remembered, adding that later in her life she was also influenced by the principles of former South African president Nelson Mandela and Tibetan Buddhist leader the Dalai Lama. “I was intrigued by the philosophy behind politics as a science.”

Shanmuganathan defended her major research paper via Zoom, on the causes of the civil war, peace processes and the prospect of peace in Sri Lanka. “The war has ended but there’s no peace unless and until the grievances of Tamils are properly resolved. Power sharing and stake in the constitution will bring peace,” her paper concluded. “There is peace in the horizon, but it will take a long time to achieve.”

Though her in-person campus experience was cut short by the pandemic, Shanmuganathan says she was determined to complete what she started. The transition to online learning was a bit difficult in the beginning, especially with a four-year-old grandchild in the house and her daughter and son-in-law working from home, but she was able to quickly adjust to the new normal.

“Anything I start, I will finish. Always,” said Shanmuganathan, who plans to write a book based on her research, on post-war Sri Lanka and prospects for peace.