Dr. Wakoh hopes to expand worldviews

By Kaitlin Airey

wakohAs an assistant professor of comparative religion and religious dialog, Dr. Wakoh Shannon Hickey makes it a goal to teach people who come to her with different views and show them that the world is not just black and white.

Dr. Wakoh, as she is known to students, joined the Religious Studies Department in fall 2013. She received her Ph.D. in Religion and Modernity from Duke University, an M.A. and M.Div. from the Pacific School of Religion, and a bachelor’s in political science from Berkeley.

She has been a practicing Sōtō Zen Buddhist for 30 years and has been an ordained Buddhist priest since 2003.

The name “Wakoh” was given to her by her Zen teacher. It is part of a longer name Kakudō Wakō, the “Wa” stands for “harmony” and “Kō” means “happiness.” The name “Wakoh” stands for “Harmony and Happiness.” “Kakudō Wakō” can be fully understood as “Understand the Way, Harmony and Happiness.”
Dr. Wakoh deeply understands different religious backgrounds and affiliations.

In her youth she was a practicing Fundamentalist Evangelical Protestant, but was tossed out of the church for asking tough questions. She still understands this worldview even though she no longer practices this religion.

If a student comes to her with a non-religious worldview and prejudgment of fundamentalist lifestyle, she said, “My task is to make them understand how the world can make sense from that point of view even if they do not agree with it.”

Dr. Wakoh feels strongly about Notre Dame’s mission. “Educating women leaders to transform the world is a heck of a good reason to get out of bed every day,” she said.

She also said that two of the biggest differences between NDMU and the other schools where she has taught are the level of diversity on campus and the hectic lifestyles of the students. She knows that students’ busy schedules pose challenges, and she works hard to balance academic standards of the university and be realistic about what students can handle.

Dr. Wakoh is well traveled. At age 30, she traveled the world by herself. Her favorite places were Ireland, Japan and Nepal. Ireland offered links to, her ancestral history. Nepal proved challenging for a woman traveling alone but fascinating at the same time. She has a strong affiliation with Japan because of its culture and her religion is a Japanese sect of Zen Buddhism.

Dr. Wakoh will be teaching World Religions in the fall, and hopes to add several religion classes to the curriculum in the future.

She was selected as one of 50 people to attend a faculty development program this summer called Teaching Interfaith Understanding. The seminar will address how to cultivate religious understanding and literacy on campus. She will also be teaching a workshop this summer called Religious Diversity Leadership, helping students and faculty work collectively. She plans to use the skills and strategies she learns to pave the way for an even wider array of religious diversity on campus.

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