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'Learning is lifelong' - 87-year-old Tamil graduate speaks of her journey through university

"Learning is a lifelong journey," said Varathaledchumy Shanmuganathan, who earned the distinction of becoming one of the oldest women to obtain a graduate degree from a Canadian university at 87 years old, in an interview with the Tamil Guardian this week.

Born in Jaffna and affectionately known as Varatha, Shanmuganathan has lived in and taught in four continents before immigrating to Canada in 2004. While at York University, she chose to focus her studies on non-violence for national peacebuilding and reconciliation in Sri Lanka.

“I Have Had So Many People Connecting To Me” — Reflecting On Media Attention

Her newly acquired degree satisfied a lifelong dream to complete a higher degree in political science, but the additional news coverage has led to an outpouring of support from her past.

“I am glad [people] are interested,” said Varatha, “with this degree, I have had so many people connecting with me.” “Long lost friends and relatives, some of them have come back!” said Varatha reflecting on the news coverage of her academic achievement, diffused across the internet. 

“When I was completing my diploma in education, I stayed in a hostel, a girl I lived with reconnected with me and said, ‘Varatha Akka, after 61 years I am connecting with you!’”

“I was a teacher and student in many corners of the world, and because of the historical developments in our country [Sri Lanka] I lost touch with many, but now they are back.”

The Family At The Heart Of Lifelong Academic Achievements

In my family, “there was no such thing as barriers” Varatha recounted how her parents and extended family advocated for her higher education. 

“I was the only girl, I was protected by my parents and by my three brothers […] my family was so supportive, my uncles, my aunts, everybody, they said she is very studious, so you have to send her [to India].”

She added, “I did hear that my grandfather, on my mother's side, thirties, said, ‘ oh they're sending her to India for higher studies? It is going to be difficult to get a good match’” but “I didn't care for my grandpa's words, it was just a talk, every other person supported me, so it didn't worry me.”

Besides, “I did meet a good match,” she said. By the time Varatha met her husband in her early thirties, she had completed a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Madras and received a Diploma in Education from Ceylon University. 
“My husband, Mr. Shanmuganathan, he was my guru, my husband, and my protector.” As teachers, they taught at schools in multiple countries, across multiple continents and Varatha completed a Masters in a British university. “ These multicultural, multilingual experience gave us the opportunity to live peacefully among different people.” These experiences inspired her to study, for her Canadian university degree, non-violence for national peacebuilding and reconciliation in Sri Lanka.

“My lifelong thirst was to go into political science and earn a higher degree. I wanted to talk about [politics], write about it, and speak on these topics with some authority.” So there were no barriers, “that's why I went and did this master’s degree at this age.”

Priya Merritt, her daughter, told CTV news, “we’re very proud of her” but “not surprised. She’s always talked about how age is not a barrier in life, just like race and gender should not be.”

“When I Start Something, I Always Finish It”

Varatha recalled that in 1956, she wanted to teach at her Alma Mater in Sri Lanka. Eventually, she was called for an interview in Colombo, and met with the Minister of Education M. D. Banda and all Sinhala panel. 

“They started the interview [and] at one point they said, ‘you are Varathaledchumy, you studied political science, you got a distinction in intermediate, will you become the Vijaya Lakshmi [Pandit] of Jaffna?’ and I said maybe.”

She explained, that Vijaya Lakshmi was an Indian politician and first woman appointed as Governor of Maharashtra and 8th President of the United Nations General Assembly. Hailing from a prominent political family, her brother was the first Prime Minister of India.

Decades later she said, “I have not become a politician, but I have been searching and searching and trying to get into this field and I finally got it! Those people just asked, and now it has come true. I am not directly involved, but I speak it, I research it, and I'm going to write a book I'm involved in politics — in our politics in Sri Lankan politics. 

“When I start something, I always finish it.”  

Advice For Parents Of First-Generation Students

Varatha told The Star, “young people [should] choose degrees not just for career's sake but choose something that is life-changing.” However, she acknowledged to the Tamil Guardian, that many parents of first-generation students push their children to choose degrees for their career’s sake. She said in a message to parents, “time has changed [...] universities have so many options that can lead to lucrative posts.” Moreover, “learning is lifelong and does not need to stop in the 20s or 30s there's no need to push these children into jobs [you] want.”

“The only thing that the parents should worry about is leading a life which is an example to their children [...] be honest and everything will be fine, and you'll be a happy family.”

“Parents should know that these days, the children know better [about their options] than the parents.” 

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