A woman who was widowed at the age of just 35 has graduated from Edinburgh Napier, with the cheers of her late husband’s friends ringing in her ears.
Frances Ryan lost the love of her life and her dreams of motherhood when Paul Ryan, who she had met by chance in a shop in Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, died suddenly of a heart attack in 2009.
The couple had been married just four years, and Paul’s death plunged Frances into mourning and put all her future plans on hold.
Her fightback began when she did a Masters course, and she was then offered the chance to pursue a PhD in the School of Computing at Edinburgh Napier, where she had earlier studied for a year as an exchange student from the USA.
Frances’s academic journey ended today when she walked across the stage at the Usher Hall to collect her degree wearing her thesis, about online information and personal reputations, on her FEET.
Frances, now 45, said: “Paul was the biggest supporter I have ever had and he encouraged my dreams from the moment we met – he was always there to celebrate or commiserate with me along the way.
“However, my support network – Paul’s old university friends, my in-laws, my family in America, and my supervisors at the university – have done their best to be there when he couldn’t be and have made this entire process possible. It is all the more poignant because Paul himself did a postgraduate diploma in computing at Edinburgh Napier before we met.
“I would love to stay in the city for the foreseeable future. This is where my soul found a place of belonging that I never felt before. If you’ve heard The Proclaimers’ song The Streets of Edinburgh, that sums up my feelings for this place.”
Frances, originally from Washington State in the USA, first came to Edinburgh Napier for a year’s study in 2001/2. She fell in love with retail manager Paul after a random meeting in a tourist shop in the Royal Mile, where he was covering for staff who were off sick.
After finishing her BA degree in America, Frances returned to Edinburgh to be with him. Paul proposed to her during a break in Venice, and they were married in her rural hometown of Cle Elum in 2005.
The newly-weds settled in America but tragedy struck on 26 April 2009 when Paul, 47, who was weeks from his first marathon, had a heart attack in the middle of the night and died despite Frances’s efforts to save him with CPR. They had been due to adopt two children from foster care shortly after his death.
Frances endured almost two gruelling years of widowhood before she felt ready to study again, and, in line with their plans as a couple to return to Scotland one day, she came back to these shores, doing a Masters of Letters in Media and Culture at the University of Stirling.
Then, as the focus of her academic interests moved from media and communications work to human information behaviour, she turned down two other PhD opportunities to take up a place at Edinburgh Napier’s Centre for Social Informatics.
Frances said: “I knew the moment I accepted that I was doing the right thing for me on a professional and personal level.
“The PhD here was based on my research proposal which was something I was passionate about, and I was also promised opportunities for teaching and public engagement work.
“I have travelled the world presenting my research and have done fun public engagement talks, including at the Bright Club and the Fringe.
“I feel very proud to have got to graduation day, and to have some of Paul’s friends here to celebrate with me. Although, like me, Paul considered Edinburgh home, he was originally from Billingham in north-east England. We both came from large working-class families, and were the first from those families to graduate from university so my dreams for a PhD became Paul’s dream, too.”
Frances, a keen recycler, even added her own quirky touch to graduation day by revamping a pair of high heels which had seen better days.
She demonstrated a deft touch in decoupage by taking cut-outs from the printed draft of her PhD thesis and used them to decorate the shoes she wore for the ceremony.
She said: “I got the idea from a framed photo I made for Paul before we got married, and I will hopefully be wearing them for presentations for many years to come.”
Professor Ben Paechter, Head of Research for the School of Computing, said: “I was lucky enough to chair the oral exam at the end of Frances’s studies.
“It was an emotional time as we all knew that this was the culmination of something very important for Frances personally. I felt a special connection because Paul and I were involved in student politics together at university.
“Thankfully, it became clear very early in the exam that Frances was an absolute expert in her field, and that her dream, and Paul’s, was going to be achieved.”