Graduate’s late father inspires double prize

Double prize-winning student Ashton McNamara

Published on 28 November 2019

For as long as she can remember Ashton’s father Graham has been inspiring and supporting her ambitions to be the first in her family to study a degree in English and go on to achieve a distinction in her MA English Studies at the University of Sunderland.

Despite the pressure of dealing with his ill health from the first year of her undergraduate English Language and Literature degree, right up until his death from pneumonia earlier this year aged 47, Ashton wanted to make her father proud and never gave up.

Thanks to the continued support of her lecturers Dr Alison Younger and Colin Younger, alongside fellow students, Ashton has achieved more than she imagined, winning this year’s John Buchan Prize for the BestOverall Student as well as the Walter Scott prize for best dissertation by an MA English student at the Winter Academic Awards Ceremonies.

After stepping on stage at the Stadium of Light to collect her prize, Ashton said: “I know dad would be so proud today. He wasthe one who taught me to believe in myself and have confidence, for years I didn’t, but he always believed in me, he was just wonderful.

“My mum Julie is here today and is bursting with pride too, as she was the one who inspired my love of English, reading to me from an early age. I am still in shock to have achieved these prizes, as my dad’s ill health really took its toll, but the university and my lectures have been absolutely fantastic. I couldn’t have gotten through this without them.”

Dr Alison Younger, Senior Lecturer in English Literature and Creative Writing, said: “Ashton's a wonderfully resilient, bright and committed student, with an absolute 'can do' attitude, and we are immensely proud of her achievements. 

“What is most astonishing is that Ashton achieved all this this despite losing her father quite suddenly and very tragically during her studies with us. More astonishingly, she still managed to take on the directorship of the University’s Spectral Visions Society and organised some tremendous events for other students.”

The 24-year-old winning dissertation was entitled ‘Gothicism in Middle Earth’.

Alex Buchan, John Buchan's grandson, presented the award to Ashton.

He said: "Ashton has written a fascinating dissertation on Tolkien and thoroughly deserves this award.

"She's obviously worked incredibly hard and it's nice to give something extra that recognises that Ashton has gone above and beyond in her studies."

The University of Sunderland has been working closely with the John Buchan Society and Museum on a number of collaborative projects. These have included the digitisation of the Society's Journal and the redevelopment of the Museum's website. In 2018 the Museum, in Peebles, Scotland, held a centenary exhibition on John Buchan, as Minister of Information in the final year of World War One.

Ashton, from Middlesbrough, is now taking some time out before embarking on a PhD continuing the theme of MA dissertation exploring Gothicism in J.R.R Tolkien’s works.

She explained: “I have always been into Gothic literature since I was young. During my course I was looking at the Dark Romanticism Period, which has a much darker and Gothic side and I related it to Tolkien’s work after spotting a gap. Gothicism is not usually used within the framework of Tolkien’s work, and is something quite new and of interest academically.”