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By John Helsley
From her home on the tiny island of Mauritius, basically a dot on the map in the Indian Ocean, Francesca Spillman once envisioned the United States through the lens of Hollywood.
“In my mind, to get to America would be the country of countries,” said the Spears School of Business accounting student, who built a perception of the U.S. through movies and television.
“In my wildest dreams, I didn’t think I’d end up here.”
Spillman ended up here all right, except her journey has anything but ended. If anything, her arrival only signaled the beginning of a greater dream.
Her path from there to here – and more – is one of life-changing encounters, enterprise and initiative, and encompassing support. Today, Francesca Spillman is a thriving 44-year-old “non-traditional” student and organization leader, a wife and mother of two, and an inspiration for all.
“I do not think of myself as an inspiration, I just carry on in life and school,” Spillman said.
It’s in linking those two elements, life and school, where the inspiration becomes clear.
Backing up to the beginning of her story, Spillman grew up soaking in all the natural elements of Mauritius, an island paradise located 1,200 miles off the southeast coast of Africa. She climbed mango trees and played sports, excelling at volleyball; and was twice voted best athlete.
“I love the beaches,” she said. “At heart, I am an island girl. It’s a very beautiful, touristic place.”
Her home island is compact, measuring 720 square miles – Oklahoma City, by comparison, is 620 square miles – and home to 1.26 million residents. Very much a westernized country, the successful Mauritius economy is built on tourism, textiles, sugar and financial services.
While still a teenager there, Spillman worked for a shipping company, one floor above the U.S. Embassy located in the same building. Down on the fourth floor, U.S. Marines stood guard.
“I happened to meet one of them,” she said. “Several months later we were married and I was here in America.”
Not just in America, but far from the beaches that adorned her younger life, smack dab in middle America: Perry, Okla., hometown of her husband Carl.
“There was a little bit of an adjustment period,” she said. “It really helped that I was in a nice friendly town. And I have great in-laws, which made the adjustment easier.”
Spillman settled into Perry nicely. Her and Carl later welcomed a son, Gabriel, and then a daughter, Heidi, into their lives. Francesca served as a stay-at-home mom and more, home-schooling her children and eventually growing a housecleaning service.
The business grew, with her clientele list expanding. Then one day out on the job, a brief interaction altered Francesca’s future. Patricia Tucker lived on the street where Francesca was working, and spotting her, approached in search of cleaning help on her house.
“I had my vacuum cleaner in my hand,” Francesca said.
Said Patricia, “She was very impressive. The vacuum cleaner weighed more than she did. She’s a tiny woman, but with a mighty spirit.”
They exchanged contact information, and within weeks Francesca was cleaning for Patricia. Soon, their relationship blossomed.
The two chatted often, talking about family and life. And Patricia grew more impressed by Francesca, to the point where she introduced an idea: the potential for more than house cleaning, even attending college.
“I saw her one day and it just stuck in my mind, it just inspired me,” Patricia said. “There’s so much more for her.”
Initially, Francesca dismissed the idea. But it kept resurfacing in her thoughts.
“This was a powerful seed that she planted in my mind,” she said.
The seed sprouted, too. Her children were getting older and more independent. Francesca realized the house cleaning, while prosperous, was becoming more physically demanding. And one day on the job, she realized she wanted more.
“At that moment I decided, ‘Ok, if I want a different future, I have to do something different,’” she said. “There was no different way out of this. That moment, I decided, ‘Well, I’m going to go to school.’”
Francesca’s journey quickly pivoted, and not without hurdles. It was March of 2016 when she committed to this bold move, and with school starting again in August, there was much to do and little time to do it.
Amid uncertainty of where she could and would attend, Francesca focused on two possibilities: Northern Oklahoma College in Tonkawa, and OSU.
For starters, she needed a high school transcript, obtainable only from the University of Cambridge, which carries out the key secondary school exams in Mauritius. She also needed an ACT score, prompting a rush to take the test. There were essays to be written, too.
Patricia’s husband, Roger, helped with the transcript. Patricia prepped Francesca in other ways. Eventually, everything fell into place, including a spot at OSU for the fall semester of 2016.
Fortunately, Francesca, whose father had been a school teacher, found allies in the Tuckers, both of whom are alums of OSU. Patricia went so far as to walk Francesca through her class schedule, literally, stepping into each classroom and even pointing out the best seats, always close to the front.
“We were there to help her open some doors,” Patricia said. “But she walked through them. She took the initiative.
“She’s very bright and has high goals and standards. That’s inspiring and gratifying.”
With the Tuckers, Francesca found she had more than mere mentors.
“As our time went on, the thought came into my mind, ‘They’re acting to me as if they were my parents,’” Francesca said. “So now our relationship has taken a different dimension. They are Ma and Pa Tucker to me. This is very precious to me and I’m very grateful for that.”
Connecting the dots of her journey leads Francesca to believe none of it happened by accident or coincidence.
Meeting her husband in Mauritius. The connection with Patricia on the street. An expanded relationship with Patricia and Roger, who first had to move back to Stillwater from Seattle, which was set in motion by new friendships made and cultivated when the Cowboys football team played Washington State in 2008.
“We did many things together (with those people) and at some point we said, ‘Why are we traveling back and forth across the country?’” Roger said. “And we moved back here.”
One day they met Francesca Spillman. And a lasting relationship was formed.
“It’s hard for me to think all of that is sheer circumstance and accident,” Patricia said. “Each step, each piece of the puzzle has seemed incredible to me.”
Said Francesca, “I decided that I would fit here in my schedule and added her to my list of clients. Of course at that time, little did I know what the outcome of that decision would be.
“This is providential, no other than God-sent.”
Today, Francesca is a thriving junior accounting student.
“She has a great attitude and exhibits a lot of gratitude,” said Spears assistant professor Matt Bjornsen. “She exhibits role-model behavior for other students.”
That extends beyond the classroom as well. Francesca quickly became involved with the Non-Traditional Student Organization on campus, starting as treasurer and advancing into a vice president role. She’s often found in a cubicle in the Student Union, chatting about the organization and helping others through her example.
“This has been good for me,” she said, “because it teaches me leadership skills and sometimes I get into a recruiting mode and try to pinpoint other non-traditional students on campus and invite them to join our organization as well.”
School has been good for Francesca, too, all the Spillmans in fact. Carl juggles a full work schedule with classes at Meridian Technology Center, and both Gabriel and Heidi are in school.
“So we’re all students,” Francesca said, before confirming how much she cherishes her OSU experience.
“This is my opportunity now, as an adult non-traditional student, and it’s an amazing journey so far.”