From Sri Lanka all the way to Ontario, Canada, Varatha Shanmuganathan’s life of pursuing knowledge and a more peaceful world is inspiring countless people across the globe.
With a love of learning that started at just 4 years old, Varatha first pursued higher education by earning her bachelor’s degree at the University of Madras in India. Afterward, she returned to Sri Lanka where she became a teacher of Indian history and English — this led her to earning a diploma in education from the University of Ceylon.
Through all of her educational pursuits, Varatha discovered that she’s most interested in local and world politics and the ways in which learning more about these topics could help her make a positive impact. That’s why, after earning her master’s degree in London, she decided to pursue a second one at 85 years old. And in only two years, she’s done just that!
“This has been a lifelong ambition to do something in political science,” Varatha said. “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.”
Going back to school at Varatha’s age may seem intimidating, but her passion for learning made the experience more exciting than nerve-wracking. Being on campus felt like “going into a temple,” and she absolutely adored mingling with her fellow classmates who she said treated her like their own grandma.
When the pandemic began, Varatha’s education took an unexpected turn. Instead of going to the York University campus, she was learning alongside her daughter, son-in-law, and 4 year old grandson. Determined to finish what she started, she chose to carry on.
The first three months in her new learning environment were stressful, but she eventually got the hang of things. She even defended her master’s thesis through Zoom!
“I have something in me — a shock absorber. Self-confidence,” she said. “That helped me.”
Despite all of the obstacles that threatened to get in her way, Varatha officially earned her degree at 87 years old, making her the oldest person to earn a master’s at York University. As an inspiration to students everywhere, she was happy to give advice to those who are young and starting on their own journeys.
“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,” Vahara said. “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.”
Taking her own advice, this 87 year old doesn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon. Using her own research, Vahara plans to write a book on post-war Sri Lanka and prospects for peace.
“I thought I could tell the world that peace, justice, and non-violence, should prevail,” she said. “So, to say this loud, I had to get that tool. Now I’ve got the tool, so I’m going to talk loud.”
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