Ontario grandmother becomes oldest person to earn master’s degree at York University

Ontario grandmother becomes oldest person to earn master's degree at York University-Milenio Stadium-Ontario
Varatha Shanmuganathan, 87, a Vaughan resident, graduated on Tuesday with her second master’s degree. (Submitted by Varatha Shanmuganathan)

An Ontario grandmother, who is the oldest person to graduate with a master’s degree from York University, says young people should use their university education to make positive change in the world.

Varatha Shanmuganathan, 87, a Vaughan resident, graduated on Tuesday with her second master’s degree.

“I will tell them, the younger generation, do your degrees, not just for career’s sake. It should be something that should be life-changing,” Shanmuganathan said in a Twitter message.

“And you should think, not about yourself all the time, but think of your country, think of the world, think of all the issues that are being discussed in this world.”

In an interview with CBC Radio’s Metro Morning, Shanmuganathan said she considers herself a student of history. She said she has always been interested in local and world politics. She considered doing a PhD in political science, but decided if she started that advanced degree, it would go “on and on” and she might not finish.

She started her second master’s degree at age 85. The subject of her research was Sri Lanka after the civil war there and prospects for peace.

“This has been a lifelong ambition to do something in political science,” Shanmuganathan said on Tuesday.

“This is an incredible journey that is an academic journey. I would call it a pilgrimage. All the time, I have been on it. But today, I came to the destination, I think.”

She said she decided to study at York University because the school offered a tuition fee waiver incentive for Canadian citizens or permanent residents aged 60 or older.

According to York Media Relations, Shanmuganathan was born in the village of Velanai in Sri Lanka. She got her bachelor’s degree at the University of Madras in India. After she returned to Sri Lanka, she became a teacher of Indian history and English. Later, she earned a diploma in education from the University of Ceylon.

She earned her first master’s degree from the University of London when she was in her 50s.

In 2004, she immigrated to Canada after she was sponsored by her daughter, who has an MBA from York’s Schulich School of Business. Shanmuganathan was accepted into York’s fall and winter session in 2019.

Whenever she went on campus, she said it felt like “going into a temple.” But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and she had to study at home, with her daughter, his son-in-law and her four-year-old grandson there, “it was a great shock.”

For the first three months, it was stressful, but she decided to continue and then she adjusted. The pandemic meant she had to defend her master’s thesis through Zoom.

“I have something in me — a shock absorber. Self-confidence. That helped me,” she said.

Younger students at York helped her along the way and mingling with them enabled her to feel rejuvenated, she said.

“I really appreciated the support that all of them gave me.”


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