Widener Grad Gets a Long-Awaited Chance to Walk at Graduation After Battling Cancer

By Jessica Reyes, Assistant Director of Communications
Shawn Ryan wears a mask, hospital gown, and gloves in one photo, and kneels down next to a dog in the other photo
Two-time cancer survivor Shawn Ryan completed a master's degree in counselor education.

Shawn Ryan never had the typical college graduation experience of walking across the platform and throwing his cap in the air while listening to the cheers of family and friends.

He was diagnosed with cancer three months before his undergraduate commencement in 2015 and marked the occasion of earning a bachelor’s degree from his Philadelphia hospital room.

Now, six years later and in remission, Ryan has completed a master’s degree in counselor education, but still wasn’t sure if he would get the typical graduation experience due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

However, Widener knows the importance of graduation and offered graduates two ways to safely celebrate: a socially-distanced mini-ceremony on Memorial Field or a drive-through ceremony in front of Old Main.

Ryan, opting for the mini-ceremony, will finally have his graduation moment.

It feels like a weight is lifted off my shoulders to get to walk at graduation. I wasn’t able to have that experience the first time around, but this time, it’s a relief and a big accomplishment. — Shawn Ryan

Associate Professor Susan Schaming said commencement will be a special moment and culmination of Ryan overcoming his health obstacles and working toward his professional goal.

“I first met Shawn in 2018 at a graduate open house; he impressed me with his perseverance when he shared being a two-time cancer survivor,” Schaming said. "Throughout his journey in the Counselor Education Program, Shawn continued to amaze me. As a contributor and collaborator with his peers in classes, he often led discourse and challenged others to reflect on their own practice. I've observed him grow professionally and personally; I am very confident he will continue to make a difference in many lives as a professional counselor."

A Senior Year Interrupted

Shawn Ryan sits on a couch and is wearing a green Eagles jersey

In 2015, the Quakertown resident was studying at Temple University when he started experiencing unusual symptoms, including nausea and a golf-ball-size growth on his neck. He attributed this to the flu or a gluten allergy, but when his symptoms worsened, he admitted himself to Doylestown Hospital and was then transferred to Pennsylvania Hospital, where he stayed for the next eight months.

His diagnosis: Stage 4 acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

“I thought I only had a few weeks left to live,” Ryan said. “I was terrified.”

While undergoing chemotherapy, Ryan continued his senior year from the hospital and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. The treatment was initially successful, and Ryan was cancer-free for a year while he worked in juvenile counseling.

However, the cancer returned and once again he was hospital-bound as he waited for a donor match for five months. His second chance came in November 2017 when he received a bone marrow transplant from a 42-year-old woman from Germany.

The Goal: School Counselor

Again, in remission, Ryan wanted to return to normal life so he turned to Widener for graduate school. He found that the counselor education program provided flexibility while he simultaneously served as a teaching assistant at Pennridge Central Middle School.

“I was scared to go back to school because of how my undergrad ended at Temple,” he said. “But, Dr. Schaming is a great professor and made it easier. I got to know everyone in the program on a one-on-one level.”

In the program, Ryan gained valuable on-the-job experience through an internship with Widener’s Student Success Initiative led by Director of Student Success and Retention Tim Cairy. Even once his internship was complete, he continued to provide academic coaching and support to four freshman and sophomore students on a weekly basis.

“It felt amazing to make a difference and to help them academically become better students,” he said. “The students felt comfortable with me because I could relate and understand what they were going through.”

With his master’s degree complete and resume-worthy experience, Ryan is ready to become a school counselor – and to finally walk across the platform at graduation.

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