A fight for an education

Ryan Francis attempts to combat student debt with an online fundraiser this summer after having to support his family while his father was ill.

Ryan Francis said his father taught him that patience is a virtue, a crucial skill to have now that his determination to graduate from Temple with an undergraduate degree has been tested more than he could have ever imagined.

When Francis, a 24-year-old business and legal studies major of senior credit standing, came to Temple as a freshman in 2007, the future looked promising. His twin brother Ken, who attended the nearby Drexel University, was a “capable academic nemesis”, as Francis affectionately recalled. Their parents had worked hard to send both sons to college at once.

Ryan Francis
Courtesy Ryan Francis

That winter, Francis’ father experienced what doctors have dubbed a ‘silent stroke’, meaning that its cause was unknown. Despite some minor lasting effects of his stroke, his father was able to return to work.

“In some respects, I feel like I didn’t deal with it,” Francis said.  “Because when I first experienced the stroke I didn’t process it, because there was no time for it. Me and my brother became the heads of the family, so we kind of had to shake it off.”

Freshman and sophomore year passed quickly for Francis, who was active in student organizations and worked out of the Owl Orientation Office. His expanding social circles included students and staff alike.

Then in 2009, Francis and his family had to face the most difficult decision they could possibly imagine. After his father suffered a second, more serious stroke, Francis’ family was given the option of ending life support that night, knowing that his quality of life if he recovered would be decreased due to further paralyzing effects.

Francis said that he and his family believed that his father was a fighter. He couldn’t speak, he had lost function in his left arm, and he would never work again, but he still “lit up a room”, in his son’s words.

His father had won the fight for survival, but then began Francis’ fight for his education.

“The issue is that I had topped my loan amount for the last semesters I’d [been enrolled],” Francis said. “The usual thing that alleviated those, my father’s income, [wasn’t] there.”

He said his options for loans outside of Temple were very limited due to his parents’ poor credit after medical expenses for his father. Without a scholarship, money from the university was also limited.

“I’m not saying Temple hasn’t helped out,” Francis said. “They’ve given [me] grants in the past, but it’s not enough. Like a couple hundred dollars.”

Since the more serious stroke that took his father out of work for good, Ryan has helped his family make ends meet, often paying bills at home where his two younger sisters still live. Even during this time of serious financial struggle, Francis first attempted to soldier on.

“I didn’t realize what his story was,” Program Coordinator at Temple University Health and Wellness Resource Center Kate Schaeffer, said. “Because he was working so hard. No one saw him slipping, because he never did! If he had looked like he was stressed out and been less charismatic, maybe someone would have said ‘Hey, do you need a hand?’”

Schaeffer said that she met Francis while he worked out of the Owl Orientation Office, and got to know him when he started dating her assistant at the time, Nicole Counts. During his junior year in 2010, Francis simply couldn’t afford to be a student whilst supporting his family, and told Schaeffer about his situation.

Once Francis explained to her that he was going to have to take time off from completing his degree because of his debt, Schaeffer and her friend Rebekah Rhodes, a faculty member at the Owl Orientation Office, sprung into action.

After talking to a slew of advisory offices and programs, the two Temple faculty members realized they couldn’t establish a personal scholarship for Francis due to legal constraints.  It was then that Rhodes had an idea to use an online site like Kickstarter, a fundraising platform.

“I remember her saying [we could] use something like Kickstarter,” Schaeffer said. “But you can’t use Kickstarter for education.”

Researching efforts eventually led them to crowdfundededu.com, where they realized they could share his story and ask for monetary donations legally and effectively. It was there that Francis’ fundraiser, ‘The eventual cap toss’, took root.

Once Francis’ campaign had met the $2,000 donation mark within a week, he said he felt a sense of hope.

“It means a lot,” Francis said. “For a couple years I kept my story to myself because I didn’t think anyone would care, but my girlfriend has been trying to get me to be more of an open person.”

Down to $5,000 of remaining debt, Francis said he is beginning to believe in his chance to graduate after this fall semester. His father saw his brother Ken graduate this past academic year, and now he said that “it means everything” to share the same experience with his father.

“I’m not just doing this for me,” Francis said. “I’m doing this for him too. He’s invested a lot in my education, and I want him to be proud of what he’s done, and I want to show him that I appreciate everything he’s done for me.”

With each donation, the future Francis said he imagines becomes a little more feasible. His dream of attending law school doesn’t seem as distant with his debt being gradually chipped way, bringing him closer to finishing his undergraduate degree. Even former classmates from high school and Temple have showed their support.

“It’s his turn, and I’m glad that people are seeing it,” Schaeffer said. “The coolest thing is when students understand the value of another student.”

Today’s generation is faced with constant pressure of student debt, financial obligations and competition within the job market. With creative uses of technology and social media, staying afloat becomes less like flailing and more like treading water, not without some fatherly advice in Ryan Francis’ case.

“He always taught me that things that you want will never come easily,” Francis said. “Because those things are worth everything.”

Erin Edinger-Turoff can be reached at erin.edinger-turoff@temple.edu.

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