In World Race, Jessica Francis will work for change in the world

May 15, 2012
Contact: Maryville College Office of Communications
865.981.8207; communication@maryvillecollege.edu

If the mark of an excellent education is one that pushes students to expand their horizons through lifelong learning, Maryville College senior Jessica Francis may be the model of “excellently educated.”

A few months following her May 20 graduation, Francis will embark on a nearly yearlong journey, traveling across the globe on a mission trip with World Race, a Christian ministry. Known to her friends as “Franny,” the 21-year-old will travel to 11 countries in 11 months, serving wherever the need is – orphanages, hospitals, schools, even brothels.

According to ministry’s official website, the 11-month race is a journey “to serve ‘the least of these’ while amongst real and raw community. It facilitates discipleship through the process of discovering into the abundant life He promised. It births partnerships with ministries around the world. It requires Luke 10-like faith.”

Speaking directly to would-be racers, the description continues: “We're calling you out of your comfort zone and giving you exposure to what God is doing in the world before you commit to the American dream. Because it's not about you, it's about the Kingdom.”

Inspired by courses

When Francis arrived at the College four years ago from Franklin, Tenn., she brought with her a spirit of adventure and a longing to discover the mysteries of the world. Maryville College fed that enthusiasm through her studies, particularly classes in human rights and ethics, and one that exposed her to other peoples.

The writing/communication major enrolled in Dr. Brian Pennington’s World Cultures 340 course, which focused on the Indian subcontinent.

“I fell in love with that culture when we studied it,” she said. “That class was one of the things that pointed me in the direction of social justice.”

According to Pennington, professor of religion, Maryville College’s curriculum is designed to help students develop their view of the world and not only to gain an academic base of knowledge.

“I think it also shows the ways that Maryville College places emphasis on service and becoming global citizens,” Pennington said. “It’s about understanding the world in order to act in an informed way.”

Pennington said he remembers Francis’ interest in and enthusiasm for the subject.

“She connected with the course material very quickly, and she was passionate about what she was learning,” the professor said. “Maryville College believes it is important that students understand other places in the world. She shows she understands that, and I’m very proud of her.”

When Francis was considering applying for World Race, she looked at different routes and discovered one that would take her to India for a month. She knew she wanted to go because of what she had learned in Pennington’s class. In addition to India, she will also travel to Australia, Malaysia, Vietnam/Laos, Cambodia, Nepal, Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya, Ukraine and Romania.

Francis said she is grateful for the lessons she learned in Pennington’s class, and she might have the chance to return the favor to some of his students. For the 2013 January Term, he will be taking students to India for a three-week term of study. Francis could be in India at the same time, which would allow her to be a guest lecturer.

“Jessica would be a great addition, if we happen to intersect,” he said.

Advocate for women

The World Race won’t be the first time this native Tennessean has stepped out of her comfort zone or taken on international matters. When she was a teenager, she traveled to Mexico on a mission trip, and after her sophomore year in college, she worked on a Christian family dude ranch in Colorado.

This semester, she has been working in Knoxville as an intern for Africa Education and Leadership Initiative (ELI), which provides funding for girls in South Sudan to attend secondary school.

Through her travels and service, Francis has become aware of – and troubled by – the plight of women across the world. She now has a strong desire to make a difference in their lives. Human trafficking terrorizes the populations in several of the countries she will visit, and she said she looks forward to addressing the problem during her journey.

And while she has a strong interest in working for social justice for women, she is passionate about writing, photography and film, and she hopes to combine all these interests into different projects in her career.

“I want to be able to tell the stories of women all over the world,” she said. “I just knew this was a great opportunity to pursue that project so early in life.”

During her travels, Francis will write a blog and keep a detailed journal that she hopes will later result in a book or media project about her experiences. When this program is finished, she hopes to enter graduate school to study visual media but acknowledges that the next year will be full of change that could point her in another direction.

Out of her comfort zone

The journey will present challenges, but also the chance to see how millions of other people live. The MC graduate will travel with about 50 other racers to the same countries, but the large group will be dispersed into smaller circles of six people who stay together. They will be living on $3 a day out of a backpack, sleeping in tents and taking showers out of a bucket.

“It’s meant to really stretch you and pull you out of the comfort of your life,” she said.

Francis said she isn’t too concerned about the lack of comfort or possible safety issues because her goal is to step into the lives of the native women as much as possible. She is confident that the World Race organization watches over the groups and provides the necessary security measures.

“Knowing that I feel called to help these women, it’s worth any of the risks and dangers,” she said. “I’m not really scared.”

Ironically, the Internet will be available on their routes. “Most of these places have Wi-Fi – they may not have running water, but they have Wi-Fi,” she said.

For those who would like to follow her blog, it can be found at jessicafrancis.theworldrace.org. She is also accepting donations to finance her travels, which racers must raise themselves. The trip itself will cost $15,500.

Writing with purpose

While at the College, Francis explored the lives of female Christian writers through her senior thesis. She impressed her advisor, Dr. Sam Overstreet, with her writing skills in her first semester as a freshman.

“It was clear from the very beginning that she was a brilliant writer and that she loved writing,” said Overstreet, professor of English and the Ralph S. Collins Professor in the Humanities.

The first chapter of her senior thesis studied three works of nonfiction written by Christian women who explored internal aspects of their lives such as insecurity, temptations and their relationships with God. Overstreet said her second chapter could be the basis for her own book.

The young writer had specific goals when she entered the writing/communications major.

“She wanted to refine her writing style, which was already exceedingly good,” Overstreet said. “She had a passion for writing.”

Overstreet said this upcoming year will expand the knowledge and writing skills that Francis has gained while at Maryville College. Working with women of different backgrounds will give her new perspectives and new ideas, he added.

“It’s fun to watch students choosing the direction of their lives and growing their abilities in such fruitful ways,” Overstreet said.

This story was written by Bonny Millard, a freelance writer for the Office of Communications.


Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the fall 2013 semester is 1,168.