Story by MARISSA HUNTSMAN
“International experience is not a luxury anymore. It’s a necessity,” said Raquel Cook, a wild-child turned world traveler who has morphed into a professor who teaches at Utah Valley University and has a unique method of teaching English to her students.
Cook claims to have been a nerd during high school, finding interests in debate and the school newspaper rather than cheerleading like her sisters. “I never even attended a high school football game,” Cook said.
After graduating from American Fork High School, Cook began her journey of self-discovery. She attended Brigham Young University choosing a degree in English.
A week after graduation, Cook, 21, set her sights outside of the small Utah community she had spent her life in. “When I first left it wasn’t because I wanted to go anywhere necessarily,” she said. “I just wanted to get out of here (Utah).”
With $100 in her pocket and a one-way ticket to Asia, Cook set out on a journey in a foreign country. The first stop on her grand world tour was South Korea, a country not known for its peaceful political culture, but one that contains hidden treasures of generation that Cook found a niche.
In South Korea she worked as an instructor of American culture and college life for police graduates to prepare for the way of life in America. She also taught English on the side, which paid her very well. Her other jobs included: a staff writer for the entertainment section of an English newspaper and radio host for a “really cheesy program but college students loved it.”
Cook gained minor stardom with countrywide TV appearances. This job enabled Cook to travel all over the country making new friends during her TV appearances, which funded her travels to other countries.
Cook spent the next few years traveling from country to country. Occasionally she got on wrong buses and had misunderstandings with the locals, but these events did her no harm. Instead she grew to feel empowered and limitless in her feature endeavors.
Bonnie Cook, Cook’s mother, said, “I constantly worried for my daughter’s safety while she spent years in foreign countries. There were no cell phones during that time but I knew we had a strong daughter who we taught well.”
Years later, Cook found her path in Manhattan and working in the financial district. She worked out of the South Tower of the Twin Towers.
The morning of Sept. 11, Cook recalls feeling that she shouldn’t have gone into work that day. But, she said, “I’m not the type of person who doesn’t go to work based on a feeling.”
Cook exited the South Tower at the time when the second plane made contact, killing her friends on the 83rd floor. That day is a blur in her mind; she even remembers that a stranger had to remind her to call her parents.
The suicide and a murder of two fellow 9/11 survivors motivated Cook to reevaluate her stance on the aftermath of that day in American history. Furthermore, America’s reaction to these events greatly upset her.
This caused Cook to realize that change could not occur by building walls between nations, or by increasing airport security checks or visa restrictions. Instead the answer could be found in education.
Cook packed up her daughter and moved back to American Fork High School and began teaching at the local high school she had graduated from.
Cook recalls that she wasn’t sure what she was expecting on her first day but remembers that she felt frustrated by the lack of interest the students had in the outside world. This frustration was fueled further by the rigorous rubric she had to follow according to the district’s standards.
However, the second year of her teaching began with the opportunity to create her own class, with its own goals. A class that would educate the senior students of the purpose of the English language and its usages in the world, both formal and informal. Using her experiences from over 40 countries, Cook fashioned a class that many first believed looked more like a history class than an English class.
Cook told her students that she spent a week in a Tibetan monastery in the Himalayas, a silent week, learning to pray. But this experience demonstrates that many people seek the same answers through similar meanings.
Cook’s entire message for the world tour-themed class could be illustrated by a single picture. A picture featuring the events of Tiananmen Square where a single student stood in front of the approaching tanks.
The message is that language, English or otherwise, is a tool used to convey a person’s thoughts and beliefs to the world. Her message championed for her students to use words and language instead of bombs to resolve conflict. To embrace different perspectives and see them as they are a person’s life.
Cook did not travel the world in the American style of guided tours and continental breakfasts. She rode on cramped buses and held everyday jobs. She was able to witness many events including uprisings in Tibet and the World Cup in Paris.
“I want my students to get out of the country,” she said. “To learn what other countries have to offer and realize the people in a different country in a hut are working towards the same goals they are.”
After all, there is too much beauty in the world for American students to fear it. Cook encourages all students to “Get out! You’re cheating yourself if you’re not.”