Passion for international issues drives student’s work

Jessica Crawford holds Joshua, a child at an orphanage in Kigali, Rwanda, last summer.

By Celine Klosterman

It all started with a trip to Madagascar.

Jessica Crawford, an Iowa State University senior whose home parish is St. Mary’s in Grinnell, knows her 2005 journey to the African country sparked a still-burning interest in international issues. She’s just not sure why.

“I’ve been trying to pinpoint the reason since then!” she laughs.

But she can speak to the “unbelievable love and generosity” residents of Madagascar showed her and others from the Davenport Diocese who traveled there as part of a global solidarity project. And she wants 60 African high-school students who hopefully will live with Iowans from August to next June to feel just as welcome. She’s helping them find families to stay with during those 10 months, as part of her internship with Iowa Resource for International Service in Ames.


“We have about 38 students left to place,” she says. The youths include an equal mix of economically disadvantaged Christians and Muslims, boys and girls, Nigerians and Tanzanians, all of whom earned scholarships to spend their junior year of high school in Iowa.

Only problem: if families can’t be found to host the youths, the youths can’t come.

Crawford knows first-hand the benefits of studying abroad. Besides visiting the Davenport Diocese’s partner diocese, the Antsiranana Archdiocese in Madagascar, she traveled to Rwanda on a three-week service trip last summer and spent her most recent spring semester in Ghana.

In Rwanda, she and her fellow travelers spent time at a children’s home and sat in on public and private school classes, where Crawford was impressed at how students and teachers made do with few textbooks and resources. She also researched the 1994 Rwandan genocide and the peacemaking efforts that followed. “It was really interesting to see the incredible amount of forgiveness,” Crawford says.

In Kpando, Ghana, she spent five months volunteering at HardtHaven, a home for children with HIV or AIDS. “I loved it,” she says. Also during her time in Ghana, she spent Easter at a Catholic Church-partnered facility for people who’d suffered damage from leprosy. It was especially appropriate on the day celebrating Jesus’ resurrection, she says, to spend time with people who’d received another chance at life.

But one of her favorite experiences in each country she visited was participating in Mass. “It was great being able to experience the Mass in other languages, but still being able to connect with people and know that thousands of miles away, my family would be receiving the same Eucharist. It really puts the Catholic Church into perspective.”

But you don’t have to travel to get a more global perspective, she says. In hosting a foreign student, “you bring that experience into your home. You have someone from another culture living with you.”

Crawford hopes to be a foreigner again. “I would love to go back to Madagascar.” She’d like to explore several issues facing the country, including what she says is a lack of farming knowledge that contributes to depletion of natural resources, and factors contributing to poverty.

“When she joined us on the diocesan delegation that traveled to Madagascar, you could see the potential leadership in Jess,” says Dan Ebener, adding that she was a “natural” in visiting with the nation’s residents. “It’s awesome to see that Jess is continuing to put her passion for social justice into action,” says the director of stewardship and parish planning for the Davenport Diocese. 

Crawford is still contemplating post-graduation plans, but hopes to work with international non-profit groups that deal with child advocacy or education. “Whether that means living overseas or in the United States, I don’t know.”

But she’s sure of one thing. “I‘ll always have a special place in my heart for international programs.”

For more information about IRIS or hosting an African student, contact Crawford at or (515) 292-7103.

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