York’s oldest master’s graduate shares her story

(Courtesy of York Media Relations)

In the midst of the pandemic, through all the trials and tribulations, one Ontario grandmother took advantage of the time and made history.

Varatha Shanmuganathan graduated with a master’s in political science in late November 2021. With the accomplishment of attaining her second MA degree, the first of which being completed in the U.K., Shanmuganathan has become the oldest master’s recipient at York, being 87 years of age.

Shanmuganathan tells Excalibur all about her journey through education, the pandemic, and her hopes for future York graduates. 

Why political science?

Political science has been my favourite subject from the time I was in high school. When I did my first degree, that was one of the subjects. I had been thinking of non-violence and peace — that is the world view I have, because I grew up during the time Mahatma Gandhi was preaching non-violence in India,” Shanmuganathan shares.

What made you choose York?

“What pushed me into this was the fee waiver for seniors that York gives. I heard about it, and then I thought, ‘okay, I should go and join and do my higher degree’ but I didn’t want to opt for a PhD because of the time period that it takes for someone to finish. So I decided, ‘why not an MA? I can finish it in two years,’” she says.

“I should thank all those who supported me while I was going through this journey. I should thank my professors; I should thank the administrative staff in the political science department. I should thank my family. I should thank my friends. So, a lot of people have contributed towards this journey and my reaching this destination,” Shanmuganathan beautifully relays.

Jlenya Sarra-De Meo, graduate program administrator of the department of politics says: “I met Varatha in 2019 when she first visited our department. I was immediately struck by her enthusiasm, her eagerness to learn and improve. Once she entered the master’s program later that year, she inspired us all with her tenacity and determination. 

“Varatha is an extraordinary woman! I feel honoured to have met her and proud to say that she graduated from our political science MA program at York,” Sarra-De Meo exclaims.

What was your experience of completing your degree during the pandemic?

“The first year was so good for me. I went to the campus, I walked through all the corridors. I went to the library. I went to the lounge. I spoke to people. It was like a dream for me — it was a pleasant period I should say.”

“Then 2020 came, and in March, the last lecture I was in, I heard, ‘no more.’ I came home, digested everything and when the lockdown came, my daughter and son-in-law both worked from upstairs and I have my grandson who is going to be five, he was with me. So, all of us tried to adjust and we adjusted.” 

“It took one or two months to adjust and start a normal life. We didn’t go out, we were inside the house. Then I had to write my major research paper after I finished all my courses. I thought little by little, let me try, sit down and do it. I don’t work much at night, you know. I look after my eyesight, so I worked during the day.”

Shanmuganathan says that her interest and inner urge was her conviction to start, and keep, writing. “It came out to be a nice major research paper,” she says.

“I never realized that it was going to happen this way, and that the media was going to pick up on this. I am everywhere,” Shanmuganathan exclains on the widespread announcement of her graduation. “People are calling from different countries, and saying, “Oh you are there, we know about you!”

What is a message you wish to give our current generation?

“I would like to tell young people, when you go for something, go for it! When you decide to do something, do it. That’s how. Before doing something, we should be thinking and deciding the pros and cons of what we are going to do. But when we have decided on something, go forward. 

Go for it, and get it, and you will get it and you will enjoy it.”

About the Author

By Jannat Yaqobi

Former Editor

Jannat is a first year Criminology student at York. Along with being part of Excalibur, she is also part of the Criminology Society, SCOLAPS, and the YFS. She has a passion for reading, writing (particularly spoken word and slam), photography, and watching classic and vintage movies. Apart from juggling her busy (and at times hectic) schedule, one can occasionally find Jannat journaling, graphic designing, or watching Golden Girls with her mom or Friends with a cup of black tea.


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