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87-year-old SL grandmother earns master’s degree in Canada

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An 87-year-old grandmother from Sri Lanka has become the oldest student to receive a master’s degree from York University.

Vaughan resident Varathaledchumy Shanmuganathan was among 4,000 students who graduated on Tuesday with a master’s degree in political science.

“It has been a lifelong ambition to do something in political science. I was interested in politics and political science all my life,” Shanmuganathan told CP24 on Wednesday.

Not only is Shanmuganathan York’s oldest graduate but she is also one of the oldest women to receive a graduate degree in Canada, according to a press release from the university.

Her newly acquired degree is also her second graduate degree after receiving her first at the University of London’s Birbeck College, when she was in her mid-50s.

While at York, she chose to focus her studies on Sri Lanka, which is where she was born and raised.

She specifically researched non-violence for national peace building and reconciliation in Sri Lanka, due in part to being influenced and impressed by civil rights leader Mahatma Gandhi during her teenage years.

“I focused on Sri Lanka because, you know, Sri Lanka has been in the news for the past 50 years, I should say, more than 50 years. Sri Lanka got independence in 1948. From that time on Sri Lanka’s news is always on… peace and war,” she said.

Shanmuganathan was born in northern Sri Lanka and travelled to India to obtain her bachelor’s degree.

After graduating, she returned to Sri Lanka and taught Indian history and English at a local school, and eventually received a diploma in education.

Before immigrating to Canada, Shanmuganathan lived in the U.K. where she studied and then taught high school English, economics and English as a Second Language (ESL).

Shanmuganathan then came to Canada in 2004 after her daughter sponsored her.

A couple of years ago, she heard about York’s tuition waiver incentive for seniors and decided to continue her passion for learning and applied.

Shanmuganathan was then accepted into the master’s programme in political science in the fall/winter 2019 session, at the age of 85.

Shanmuganathan said she strived to do her best in school, including getting A’s on all of her assignments.

“I always wanted to get A or A minus and I got A or A minus all the way through,” she joked.

Although Shanmuganathan was excited to walk among her fellow peers on campus, that time was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Instead, she spent most of her studying at home with her daughter, son-in-law and four-year-old grandson.

“It was a great change and was a shock when we were cooped down in our houses. It is a life-changing experience, I should say, for all, not for me alone but for everyone.”

As for what’s next, the accomplished educator and student said she plans on becoming a published author.

“I wanted to do my PhD but I came down to do my MA (Masters of Arts) because I thought I should finish it and do something after that. That something is I’m going to write a book.”

Shanmuganathan’s book is expected to focus on her research on post-war Sri Lanka. (CP24)

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