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Graduates’ Faith, Perseverance Pay Off at MC’s Winter Commencement

Zachary Francis and Emery Applegate are among hundreds of inspiring graduates to participate in MC's Winter Commencement Dec. 17.
Zachary Francis and Emery Applegate are among hundreds of inspiring graduates to participate in MC's Winter Commencement Dec. 17.

When Zachary Francis packed up his wife and two children and drove 17 hours from Port St. Lucie, Florida, to Clinton just to visit Mississippi College, all he had was the dream of one day entering dental school and the faith that God would lead him down the correct path.

While Emery Applegate of Indianola was enduring a grueling rehabilitation program to strengthen the knee she had injured playing in an impromptu soccer match, she put her trust in the Lord, switched majors at MC, and accepted a new challenge for the rest of her life.

The tremendous conviction of both students will pay off on Friday, Dec. 17, when they will be among hundreds of graduates to be honored by MC leaders during the Christian University’s Winter Commencement in the A.E. Wood Coliseum.

The ceremony for Interdisciplinary Studies, the School of Nursing, and the School of Science and Mathematics is scheduled for 10 a.m.; the ceremony for the School of Education and the School of Law is scheduled for 1 p.m.; and the ceremony for the School of Business, the School of Christian Studies and the Arts, and the School of Humanities and Social Sciences is scheduled for 4 p.m.

Dr. Blake Thompson, MC president, will welcome the graduates and give opening remarks, while Dr. Tommy Leavelle, retired professor in the Department of Mathematics at MC and the 2020-21 Distinguished Professor of the Year, will give the Commencement Address. After Thompson, Dr. Keith Elder, provost and executive vice president, Dr. Debbie Norris, associate provost and graduate dean, and each school’s respective dean confers the degrees, Dr. Jim Turcotte, vice president and executive director of alumni affairs, will give the Alumni Charge, and Elder will offer closing remarks.

During last summer’s convocation, Thompson introduced MC’s theme, “Rise Up,” for the 2021-22 Academic Year, and invited the MC Family to make this a year built on the “good work” God calls us all to do. The encouragement taken from Nehemiah 2:18 illustrates that, although situations can change at a moment’s notice, God will strengthen our hands.

Those words were vividly illustrated by Francis and Applegate’s respective academic journeys to MC’s Winter Commencement stage.

While growing up, Francis had admired his mother and grandmother’s careers in nursing, and wanted to continue the family tradition of medical service to others. Admittedly, he never really liked hospitals, but he had noticed a health care need within his community: Several of those around him had bad teeth, but didn’t have the money or the wherewithal to get them fixed.

He had always liked design, architecture, and working with his hands – fundamental elements to the profession of dentistry – and he pondered why there were so few Black dentists. So, he worked his way through community college and attended Florida State University, where he was president of the pre-dental club, fully intent on one day joining the profession. A weeklong mission trip to Nicaragua solidified that desire.

“People would come in pain and you could really give them confidence and happiness that comes from a nice smile,” he said. “Dentistry is also conversational. I’m a talker, and I wanted to be able to interact with every patient.”

Upon graduating from FSU, however, life’s circumstances found him excelling as an award-winning teacher, assistant basketball and girls’ track coach, and mentorship program leader in the St. Lucie Public School District instead. Then an old college friend, Michael Brown, issued him a challenge.

Brown had obtained his master’s degree at MC and had gone on to medical school. He had one simple question for Francis: “How long?”

“What that means is, ‘When are you going to get your act together?’” Francis said. “When I was at Florida State, I was the one who got people in contact with dental schools and other institutions that had master’s programs. In fact, I was the one who had told Michael about the master’s program at MC.

“He asked me, when it came down to it, how long until I take my own advice – until I do it myself?”

A young husband and father of two, Francis had his doubts about returning to an institution of higher learning to pursue his ultimate career goal. But his friend got him in contact with Charles Hines, a dental practitioner from a similar background, who helped convince Francis it was possible to further his education while providing for his family – given the right setting.

Francis emailed academic leaders at a few schools and was surprised to receive a call that same day from Dr. Stan Baldwin, dean of the School of Science and Mathematics, who invited him for a visit to MC.

“I’m thinking, ‘I would love to visit, but how am I going to get there?’” Francis said. He didn’t have the money for fuel for the car, much less a plane ticket to Jackson. Thankfully, two weeks after Baldwin’s call, he received a check in the mail from his time working as a physician liaison, and his family was on its way to Clinton.

“There were no promises guaranteed - It was literally a hope and a prayer,” Francis said. “Faith without works is dead. Literally, you’ve got to be willing to trust in God and go wherever he leads you.”

Baldwin helped Francis secure a place to stay, financial aid, and a new purpose: to obtain a master’s degree in biology medical sciences at MC.

“It took me 17 hours just to get to MC, but in 45 minutes we had a place to stay and I had been enrolled in the program,” Francis said. “I told Dr. Baldwin, ‘You know you’ve messed up, right? You’ve believed in me.’ Anybody who believes in me, I’m going to work hard for them.

“I owe it to the people who believe in me to be my absolute best. This program gave me the opportunity to showcase what I bring every day – hard work and loyalty.”

That ethic has paid off for Francis. On Dec. 1, he received offers to attend three of the country’s leading dental schools: the College of Dentistry at Howard University, the College of Dentistry at the University of Florida, and the Tufts University School of Dental Medicine. It’s a position he never imagined being in when he completed high school a little more than a decade ago.

“Back then, I couldn’t even sniff dental school, and now I have three remarkable choices,” he said. “It’s so beautiful to share with peopIe my story of hope, inclusiveness, perseverance, and understanding that it’s not about how you start or finish, it’s about putting things in perspective and taking things one day at a time.”

He credits those he has encountered at MC for helping push him closer to achieving his career goal.

“I’m confident – I know I can go to dental school and succeed because of MC,” he said. “Everyone here played a pivotal role. I owe a lot to every professor, every colleague, my study partner, the people who did better than me on tests, all the way down to the housekeeper who would encourage me. Everyone here played a pivotal role.

“I want to go where I can have the biggest impact. I meditate not to be hasty in my decision. It’s about what God wants me to do. If you walk by faith and not by sight, you can definitely achieve anything you want to if you trust in God, believe in Him, and put the work in.”

Applegate had also planned to enter the dental profession and was on her way to obtaining a degree in chemistry with a pre-dental minor. But during her sophomore year at MC, she was called to pivot toward a completely different program of study.

“I had come to a breaking point, and I had a meeting with Jesus,” Applegate said. “I was doing good in chemistry, but I hated the classes I was in, and I felt miserable all the time. I had wanted to make a good living, support myself, and help people along the way, but that didn’t include the Lord in any way.

“He put it in my spirit to let go of that and to pursue the Lord. At that point, I didn’t really know what that looked like, but I needed to make a change.”

She chose to switch majors to marketing, a broad subject that offered practical knowledge applicable to a wide range of employment opportunities. After injuring a knee during a soccer match, her unexpected exposure to physical therapy from a patient’s perspective helped her realize God’s calling in her life.

“I was running uphill, the ball changed directions, I had to stop on a dime and turn, but my body went one way and my left knee went the other,” Applegate said. “I popped my ACL in half, but luckily, it was close to the end of the semester.

“I had to take my finals early so I could have surgery in the summer.”

Although the surgery was a success, Applegate had to undergo intensive physical therapy before starting her junior year. As director of intramurals at MC, sports is a big part of her life, so she pursued her PT with a passion just to be able to return to the field.

“I got my range of motion back,” she said, “but I wanted to be able to play sports without thinking about my knee. It just wasn’t where I wanted it to be.”

She went through the second round of rehab – this time concentrating on more active than everyday range of motion – and eventually had her knee’s functionality completely restored.

Good thing, too: As one of the student leaders of MC’s Dance Marathon, a lively fund-raiser for Children’s of Mississippi that sees dancers strut their stuff for six consecutive hours to benefit pediatric patients in Mississippi, she couldn’t afford to be hobbled.

“It’s so cool to see how much of an impact you can have on the community or in a child’s life just by driving around to businesses and talking to students in the Quad and asking them to help with Dance Marathon,” she said. “My freshman year, they broke ground on the Sanderson Tower at Children’s of Mississippi, and they finished the expansion last year. I feel like my college career went full circle watching that building grow and making such an impact on families in Mississippi.

“It’s a great resource, and knowing MC’s Dance Marathon contributed to it each year makes it even more special. I’m thankful for having been a part of the program.”

For her scholarly achievements and diligent work in service to others, Applegate was selected as a member of MC’s Hall of Fame.

“I was completely blown away and honored that I was considered, let alone elected,” she said. “MC has been so impactful on me. All the people who taught me just poured so much into me – they saw the potential in me my freshman year and gave me an opportunity to serve and to grow and to hopefully be a good leader and friend to the people around me.

“I’m so thankful to have had this experience. I wouldn’t be who I am without MC.”

Upon graduating, she plans to serve as a PT technician at Performance Therapy in Madison. She has applied to the Physical Therapy Program in the School of Health Related Professions at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, and hopes to interview for an open slot in the class next month.

Wherever she goes, she plans to carry the spirit of servitude she developed at MC with her.

“Just being able to greet people, acknowledge them, and just be the hands and feet of Christ and take the time to ask how they are doing - to just truly love and care for people - that’s one of the biggest things I hope to take with me,” she said. “In addition to having developed my leadership skills, I want to show people that their passions and desires in life are not just a pipe dream.

“If they trust in the Lord, they can achieve those as well.”