Our Stories

Listening as Letting Go

Cassandra Farrin '05 was a freshman when the two planes struck the Twin Towers. She had been at Willamette two weeks. A week earlier a friend had been struck by a car; a week later another friend was struck by a car. Both died, and Farrin was in a state of searching.

"We were in class with Professor Dave McCreery and asked him many, many questions," the religious studies graduate says. "He had spent time in the Middle East and helped us understand the difference between media portrayals and the real Islam."

It was Farrin's first experience in thinking across cultures and religions, and it projected her onto a meaningful path, one that is now leading her to graduate studies in comparative religion at the University of Lancaster in Great Britain, courtesy of a Fulbright grant. She competed with more than 500 applicants for 10 spots in a Fulbright exchange program in the U.K.

So how did a young woman from the farm town of Emmett, Idaho -- population 6,500 -- win one of the most competitive grants in the world? She did it by working hard, of course, but also by being genuinely curious about the world.

"In my studies, I want to compare religions without simplifying, objectifying or judging," Farrin says. "We can feel threatened by a person whose view of the world challenges our core values, we can allow fear and discomfort to create a protective barrier, or we can take a step toward greater understanding.

"With globalization there's more border crossing," she says. "I'm not talking about just geographical borders, but borders of ideas, cultures and religious beliefs. When you connect with ideas from a different context, you can't argue in terms of black and white anymore. There are too many systems."

Farrin says her first lesson in listening across cultures came from a deaf student at Tokyo International University in America (TIUA), located at Willamette. "Nao Kawakami read lips," Farrin says, "and didn't learn sign language until she came to America. She taught me to listen. Americans create friendship by giving information as a gift, but with Asian friends you're expected to give conversational space. American culture prioritizes the speaker's responsibility to convey meaning as clearly as possible, but we don't always notice how the way we listen impacts a conversation. Developing this skill in inter-religious and intercultural dialogue is an important step toward authentic communication.

"As a freshman, I was a conservative Christian talking across cultures with my TIUA friends, many who believed in a fusion of Buddhism and Shintoism. It was difficult trying to negotiate across culture and religion, until I realized I had to change my questions. We were starting from such different places."

Farrin gave up playing string bass with the University Chamber Orchestra to create time for her new relationships with TIUA students, but still managed to pack a lot of experience into four short college years. She explored her spiritual vocation in a semester at Yale Divinity School; helped found TellUs, a journal about Study Abroad experiences; and was selected by the college dean to contribute an essay in a university publication about freedom of expression.

After graduation Farrin taught English in Japan -- "I wanted to spend time there before the rest of my life started" -- but soon returned to TIUA as a campus life assistant and community coordinator. "I still have all the students' names memorized," she says, "and I still get emails saying, 'Do you remember me?' Of course I do!"

Farrin also filled in as interim director for Willamette's Community Service Learning, where she helped students organize volunteer trips and activities. "Volunteering is a great way to go into an unfamiliar setting, which is key for learning how to listen to people who are different from ourselves," she says.

In her graduate studies Farrin plans to look at the nature of listening and its relevance to comparative religion, with an eventual goal of becoming a professor of religious studies. "I hope my students will become more interested in what they don't understand about others," she says.

For information about the Fulbright and other scholarships, contact Monique Bourque in the Student Academic Grants and Awards Office on the second floor of the University Center.