The following interview with Raquel cook was first published by the Mormon Women Project in February 2014.
Raquel Cook’s biography so far might read like an adventure novel—living and working in Korea, meeting the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa, studying at Oxford University, surviving the violence of 9/11 in New York City—but she’d rather you wrote your own adventure. Now a professor of education, Raquel reflects on her unique path and how she encourages her students to get out and see the world. And she explains how her study of world religions helped her better appreciate her own Mormonism. “There is truth everywhere,” Raquel says, “and there is happiness everywhere, and there is beauty everywhere, and people are good. Ugly is rare. People are just beautiful and good.”
I pretty much grew up in Utah Valley. I went to high school here and then did my undergrad at BYU. While I was there, I studied language arts and classical civilization. Kind of typical. But then I guess where it started getting atypical was a couple weeks before graduation.
I was angry. I’m just going to go ahead and say that I was angry at life. Not necessarily because of the way I was raised, but because I had been witness to some things growing up and I had been the victim of some pretty severe wrongdoing that went largely ignored.
When graduation was approaching, I had a lot of options. I had scholarships to law school, I was engaged to a really cool guy, I had job offers, but I was only 21. And then this option came up to go work abroad for a while and so out of the blue I just stepped on a plane and left everything.
The motivation at that point was more to get away from here, to get away from the expectations, to get away from the anger, to get away from people. It wasn’t because I had this big curiosity about the world; it was because I wanted to get away. It was because I wanted to leave, not because I wanted to go anywhere.
When I left, I think I had just turned 21, and I kind of left the Church at the same time. But I always carried a Book of Mormon with me, and I always paid my tithing, even though I would go months or years without stepping into a church. I always did those things.
What was the opportunity to go abroad?
My first opportunity was going to South Korea to work for the National Police Academy. They had selected ten cadets, ten seniors, that were going to come to graduate school in the United States. They already spoke English so my job was to prepare them culturally to live here. We did things like watch movies and practice ordering in a drive-through and learn how to write checks. Things like that.
I lived in Korea for a few years, but I ended up staying abroad for probably eight or nine years. It led to some really crazy adventures. I ended up hosting a morning radio show. I wrote for an English-language newspaper. I traveled a ton. I went wind surfing in the Philippines; I rode a motorcycle through Vietnam; I rode a horse across Mongolia; I rode trains all over China.
But slowly, after a few years of bumming around, the travel became more purposeful. At first it was all about the adventure. Like, sneaking into Myanmar without a visa, hoping not to get caught. Doing just crazy things. But then the more I traveled, the anger started to dissipate and I started to do more purposeful things. I did a vow of silence to gain audience with the Dalai Lama and I worked in one of Mother Teresa’s hospitals, so I got to meet her. I spent time in a refugee camp.
How were you paying for all of this travel?
When I lived in Korea, the people that I worked for, first at the Police Academy and then at the radio station, they paid my housing. And I taught English on the side. So every penny that I saved went to traveling. And then when I’d run out of money I’d run back to Korea and work for a few more months and save some more money and then go travel again.
When you’re hitchhiking and staying in people’s homes and sleeping in parks and eating street food, you can spend anywhere from 40 cents a day to a few dollars a day. And when you have time to kill, when you’re walking or hitchhiking, or riding on top of a train instead of in it, you’re not spending hundreds of dollars on airfare. So my money stretched and allowed me to do a lot of really cool things.
I went to a temple in southwest China and studied Qigong and Daoism for a while. I went to Amritsar in northern India and spent a couple of weeks in a temple there learning about Sikhism, and I completed the vow of silence with the Dalai Lama and learned about meditation and prayer. The wandering turned from being a series of crazy adventures and anger-venting to soul-searching. I didn’t want to come home because I was curious and I was learning so much and I was loving what I was doing.
How did this journey relate to your own Mormonism and your own spirituality from that heritage?
That’s a good question. Because at first I thought it didn’t relate. When I was in high school I announced to my family that I wanted to study at Oxford University one day. My father pulled me aside and said, “People like us don’t do things like that.” So that was kind of engrained in me.
It was also engrained in me that all of my sisters and friends had gotten married very young and were having children and were doing what they had been commanded to do and they had been doing what’s right. And following that expectation, the boys were going on missions and coming home and getting married and then going to college. And the girls were starting college and getting married, and then dropping out of college to have babies. And there I was, running around for almost a decade, jumping on trains, riding around the planet, eating weird food, climbing in the Himalayas, getting caught in mudslides, getting caught in terrorist attacks, getting caught in markets in Kashmir that were exploding with violence.
I was away from the Church for a long time. The Church just wasn’t in the places where I was. I did carry my Book of Mormon with me everywhere I went, but I started finding that I could have spiritual experiences in other ways. I learned about charity and service from a Catholic nun, and I learned how to pray and meditate from a Tibetan monk, and I learned why my parents wore [temple] garments from a Sikh.
Was that confusing?
It was confusing because I had been told that no one else was right. And yet, here I was learning so much about myself and about my own faith by reading the Qur’an and the Upanishads.
Here’s one of my most oft-quoted experiences: Somewhere along the line in my travels, I stopped in England and enrolled at Oxford University for a master’s program. (People like us do things like that!) I lived in a flat with a Muslim, a Jew, and an atheist. It sounds like a bad bar joke. The four of us would sit at night in our kitchen. One was observing halal, one was observing the Word of Wisdom, one was observing kosher, and one was a vegan. So we’d have these conversations about who was eating what and why. And we all just respected what the others were doing.
I got to be really, really close with the Muslim gal, Aisha, who was from Pakistan. She and I started reading scriptures together off and on. We’d one night read from the Qur’an and another night read from the Old Testament. Or we would pick a topic, like Mary the mother of Christ, or charity, or tithing, or some topic, and then we’d compare what our scriptures and prophets said about those things. We did that through the whole year. And there was never any attempt to convert. Only to understand.
At the end of that year, she presented me with a beautiful Qur’an, and she said, “Thank you for such a special year. You have made me a better Muslim.” I was like, “You have made me a better Christian. You have made me a better Mormon.” It was one of the most profound and gratifying compliments I’ve ever received.
Tell us about your experience on September 11, 2001.
After I finished graduate school in England, I moved to New York and started working for a corporate finance firm in lower Manhattan. I wanted to go into teaching. I always wanted to be a teacher but I had some health issues, and I figured I couldn’t afford to teach. I had a lot of bills to pay. So I worked in corporate finance and I was kind of a peon for a few years and then 9/11 happened.
I was in the World Trade Center when the first plane struck and I made it to the lobby of the building. I wasn’t working in the towers. The building that I worked in was a couple blocks to the south, but I rode the train into the towers every morning. So I was down in the train station [below the towers]. When I came off the train, all these people were running down the stairs screaming that there had been a bomb. And then when I turned to get back on the train, the train doors closed and the train went away, and then the announcers said no more trains were coming. So people started jumping on the tracks and running along the tracks to get away. I hate rats, so I decided to go up and out through the lobby.
When I got up into the lobby there was so much debris falling that no one was going out. There was debris, bodies, shards of glass. You can imagine. So no one was actually running out. But I was standing there in the lobby looking up at all this stuff falling when all of a sudden the second plane appeared and crashed into the other tower. I was literally looking straight up into that when that happened. I don’t want to go into detail of the day, except to say that I spent most of that day curled up in the dark basement of a nearby building with a bunch of strangers.
This was Armageddon as far as we were concerned. There was no outside communication, there was no power, no anything. I made it to a nearby building, and the super led me down into the basement. A bunch of people were sitting down in the dark and a couple of supers were walking around with flashlights making sure everybody was okay. But we were close enough to the [World Trade Center] that we could smell it. We could smell the petrol, we could smell the concrete ash, we could smell everything, we could hear everything, we could feel everything, but we couldn’t see anything. And we couldn’t communicate with the outside. We had no accurate information at all.
We were down there most of the day until the afternoon when we were finally led out. Somebody found a box of old company t-shirts that we doused in water and wrapped around our faces to cover the smell so we could breathe. When they brought us out, they essentially told us that we had to walk home because the subways weren’t running.
We came out and the first thing that I remember was that everything was gray. Everything was covered in this really soft, fine concrete ash. It was all over everything—all over the cars, all over the trees. So there was no color but gray everywhere. It was like a fresh snowfall, except that it was gray. I remember standing there and not wanting to step into it because I knew that there were bodies in that ash. So I was afraid to step; I was afraid to walk. I couldn’t wash my clothes for the same reason. I didn’t want to throw my clothes away but I didn’t want to wash them because I thought it would be sacrilegious. I thought it would desecrate these people’s bodies that had already been desecrated. So I put my clothes and shoes in a bag and just put the bag in the back of my closet and it sat there until I left New York. I thought I was the only person that did that but over the years I have talked to a lot of people that did the same thing.
It came to me [after 9/11] that I could no longer afford not to teach. That the only way anybody’s attitudes or paradigms were going to change was through education. So I packed up my daughter and we moved out here to Utah where I could have some help babysitting while I went back to school.
I moved out here clearly thinking that I would come here, go to school, and then go back to New York. But I ended up teaching English language arts at the high school I graduated from. I taught there while I worked on my dissertation and when I finished my dissertation I moved over to Utah Valley University, where I now work in teacher education.
As a high school teacher, English language arts was my vehicle, but my whole obsession became teaching my students empathy and curiosity. I wanted more than anything, when my students graduated, for them to get on an airplane and leave the country. I wanted to dispel everything that they had been told before about how horrible the world is and how America is the only safe place to be. I started telling them to learn other languages and get ready to travel.
Everything we studied—we read Things Fall Apart, The Kite Runner, and Hiroshima—we read all these books to get them curious, we watched foreign films and did community projects and went on field trips to get them curious about the world. My whole focus shifted from me traveling, which I still love to do, to getting other young people to do it.
We’d spend the whole year virtually traveling to all these different areas of the world and reading all this literature and watching all these films and having guest speakers and going on field trips and doing all this really cool stuff. Then I would tell them, okay, at the end of the year the final is going to be comprehensive, so you have to remember everything you learned this year. So they’d stress out and study everything and try to get ready for the final. They’d come in for the final and there was a box of crayons on their desk and a blank piece of paper.
The final was for them to color and write me a postcard from wherever they were going to be five years from graduation. Anywhere in the world, doing whatever, whether it was service somewhere or study abroad or something. I kept those in this little book. But then guess what started to happen? I still get postcards. I have probably 200 postcards from former students. And I only taught [high school] for four-and-a-half years.
Of course some students send me more than one from multiple places: “I’m just riding trains around Europe,” or “I’m working in a orphanage in Chile,” or “I just did this really cool vision project in Malaysia,” or “I’m teaching school in Africa.” I have them from all over the world. I have former students who studied automotive engineering in Japan, dance in China, and cooking in Italy. They all say, “Thank you for letting me know this was a possibility.”
My motivation for leaving [Utah] in the first place was to get out of here because I was angry. But now my motivation is that I want other people to realize that people like us do things like that. It’s okay for Mormons to do that.
If we’re a global church, we’ve got to get out there and we’ve got to recognize the beauty in other people and we’ve got to recognize what they have to offer us. Not just what we have to offer them. It doesn’t have to be about conversion. It can be about learning and recognizing that other people have things that we don’t have and other people have things they can teach us.
You’re a real teacher in the way of interacting with the world.
I want the teaching to go beyond nouns and verbs, obviously. I want it to be about people. And about learning to love learning, and authentic learning, and travel. So I’ve become this jack-of-all-religions, languages, countries, and cultures, but a master of none. And I get so much satisfaction now with convincing other people to go, with seeing young people be curious about the world and want to go do volunteer work or study abroad.
Tell us a little bit more about your evolution in your relationship with the Church? When did you re-embrace your activity in the Church after you had come back to the United States?
I don’t know if there’s a specific turning point. When I left, I was angry and I professed to believe in God so I’d have somebody to blame for different things. I don’t know if there was a decisive shift, other than to say I went from reckless traveling and reckless random experiences, to stumbling upon a group of people doing Tai Chi in a park and all of a sudden making the traveling purposeful. It became purposeful in a spiritual sense. And the more I learned about other religions the more I learned about mine.
I probably re-embraced my activity when I went to England and started attending [church] regularly in England. I mean, I kind of went here and there. I went once in Delhi. I went once in China, but of course the gathering was broken up so we only met for about 20 minutes before we were forced to disperse. I went in Korea. I had a lot of Mormon friends in Korea, so I’d go once in a while there.
But regular attendance probably picked back up when I was in England and was working through the anger and trying to put all the pieces together. While I was working on my thesis there I was also meeting with a not-active LDS therapist who helped me to see the parallels between what I was working on in school and my own personal life. I was researching the Korean comfort women, the women who had been forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese during World War II, and whose own culture wouldn’t let them speak about what had happened to them. He would ask me these questions like, “What do you think happened in Korean culture that allowed these women to start to speak? What happened in your life that now you’re able to speak?”
I think a lot of it had to do with ridding myself of anger and embracing the Atonement and recognizing that the Atonement is not just about overcoming sin. It’s about believing that the Lord’s going to take care of things. That all is fair and just and I don’t need to hang onto the anger, because the Lord’s going to take care of it. Me being angry at something someone did to me years ago is like being angry at a brick wall. It doesn’t affect them in any way. All it does is make me unhappy. But if I can hand that anger over to someone who has already suffered for it, then I can put my energy in a better place. In a place where it’s actually going to be useful.
That’s what the Atonement has become for me: a way to forgive other people and a way to deal with trials in life. Just hand it over. I don’t need to carry this burden. It’s not mine. I think if I hadn’t actively practiced Daoism, I would never have fully learned that.
I’ll tell you one really pivotal experience. You know how in life, you might have two or three pivotal experiences on which your existence hinges? One of those for me occurred when I was hiking in the northern Indian Himalayas. I was hiking in an area called Triund. At that time I was letting go of this energy and really starting to connect and really think about who I was and where I had come from. It’s kind of cliché to say this happened in India. It could have happened in Des Moines, Iowa, but it just so happened to be in India, after spending time at an ashram and doing a vow of silence. The geography is purely coincidental.
I was sitting up at this ledge area called Triund and I remember a very physical feeling. It was very peaceful and very quiet, except for the wind. I remember the distinct feeling of a burden lifting off of my whole soul and blowing away. I remember, after feeling that, walking over and standing at the edge of a cliff and fully, with my whole heart and mind, believing that if I were to jump off that cliff I would fly. That’s how light I felt.
It wasn’t because I wanted to go crashing to my death. I simply felt so light at that moment that I honestly thought I could fly. That feeling only lasted about twelve seconds, but I do remember that as a pivot. I don’t think that it’s the only pivot. I do think there were multiple experiences that brought me together. But it was that breeze washing away that heaviness that made me decide that I was going to stop being angry and go back to activity.
It was months before I got to England, it was months before I actually set foot in a church after that and before I started working with the therapist. But it was then that I was able to say, okay, I can reconcile things. My life is not so bad after all. But then it was hard because I didn’t dive right back in to activity. I’d get in, I’d be active for a little while, and then I’d realize, okay, I don’t fit. And so I’d leave again and then I’d go back again and, okay, I don’t fit.
Why was it that you weren’t fitting? Did you feel your experiences set you apart in unusual ways?
Not to say that no one else has valuable experiences. It wasn’t that. It’s that my experiences were different. I had spent years by myself hitchhiking around dozens of countries, having all these amazing experiences, but I didn’t have anything to talk about to anybody. I’d get to church and they’d be talking about their Bunco nights and their scrapbooking parties, and I’d want to talk about the political uprisings in Kashmir. I wanted to talk about meeting Mother Teresa and I wanted to talk about riding a motorcycle in Vietnam and crawling through the Cu Chi tunnels. I wanted to talk about things no one wanted to hear. I didn’t feel like I had anything to contribute or that this culture would accept what I had to contribute.
Has anything changed or made a difference in the intervening years?
Well, when I moved back [to Utah] from New York, I was a single mom while I was teaching at the high school and working on my dissertation. And originally I was not well accepted. I could tell you some horror stories. Women would just walk up to me in church and say to my face, “Stay away from my husband.” And I’m like, “Who’s your husband?” So I was seen as this threat. I don’t know why they would say those things to me.
In one ward that I was in I felt very, very ostracized and one day one of the gals in the ward that I had actually gone to high school with called me and asked, “What are you doing on Tuesday at 1?” I got really excited because I thought, okay, finally someone’s going to include me. Someone’s going to invite me to go do something. I said, “Oh, I have to work but I will be done by 2 or 2:30?” She’s like, “Oh shoot. Because a bunch of us are going to lunch and I needed a babysitter.” I have a dozen more stories like that I could share.
And the other thing is people couldn’t understand how happy I was. Why should I be happy? I was a single mom. They couldn’t figure out what I was so happy about. I didn’t need to be married to be happy. That bothered a lot of people and they tried to convince me otherwise.
So you’re married now, with stepchildren?
I got married when I was 41 and he brought a few kids into the mix. He has random, crazy stories like I do. He’s traveled all over. So when I met him it was like, okay, nothing’s going to rile him up. It doesn’t matter what I tell him, it doesn’t matter what experience I share, he’s going to have one too. He’s a pretty rare specimen. He’s well-traveled and we have a lot of similar qualities. We’ve been married about a year and a half now.
You’re newly married!
Yes. Very newly married. It’s been a struggle. As wonderful as he is, it’s been hard for me. I like being alone. I’m not a talker. I’m not a communicator. I traveled for years by myself, so I’m not used to talking about how I feel. I’m used to not having anyone there to tell. So now that there’s somebody there I forget that I can. He has to remind me.
And you know what? I wouldn’t do it any other way. Some people think, “Oh, she didn’t get married until she was 41?” My family had pretty much written me off. But I was happy single. I could have been single ten more years. I’m grateful that I found the one I did because I’m very, very happy, but had I not found him, I would be single the rest of my life. He’s the only thing that’s better than being single.
It bothers me that some of my students didn’t want to travel because they were afraid that if they left Utah they wouldn’t get married. But you can have it all. You can be educated, you can be well-traveled, you can do what you want to do. People like us do things like that and still have it all. You can travel and have degrees and still have a testimony. I don’t think girls and young women are raised to believe that, still. I think we’ve come a long way in the Church in terms of letting girls know what they can do, but I don’t think we’ve come far enough.
Do you have another trip planned with your family?
We do, actually. We’re going to Guatemala for spring break. I’m really excited. My daughter’s in an immersion program here so she’s a fluent Spanish speaker. She says, “When I’m done learning Spanish, I’m going to learn French and Hindi and Chinese.” I’m like, “You go, girl!” I love that. We’re going to keep traveling and embracing the world.
My goal now? I love seeing good people succeed when they work hard, and I love seeing good things happen to good people. I want to help others succeed and I want to do good things. That makes me so happy. I’ve been there, I’ve done that. I don’t have anything to prove anymore. I want to see the people I love come out of their skin and lose their inhibitions and embrace the world and do fun and amazing things. I want to see people like us do things like that.