Students often find surprising connections between the fields they study in the liberal arts — but Francine Shaft wasn’t sure it would happen for her.
A junior majoring in theology and Japanese, she thought at first that her two disciplines might just be too different to intersect.
“I was really worried that I wasn’t going to find that crossroads, because it seemed like I had chosen two things that were so far removed from each other,” Shaft said. “Looking back now, I have to laugh, because there have been so many opportunities I didn’t expect.”
Shaft has discovered intersections through her classes and research — both on campus and in Japan. Those opportunities would not have been possible, she said, without the support she found at Notre Dame.
“The idea of research was intimidating, especially my first year,” she said. “I knew it was a very good experience to have, but I think most first-year students don’t really know what it looks like on the ground. It meant so much to me that the faculty and the University were willing to invest in me.
“Notre Dame wants you to start pursuing what you’re passionate about, even as a freshman,” she said. “If I didn’t have these people who have believed in me from the start, I don’t think I would be as creative and as bold in the sorts of experiences I want to have.”
“Notre Dame wants you to start pursuing what you’re passionate about, even as a freshman. If I didn’t have these people who have believed in me from the start, I don’t think I would be as creative and as bold in the sorts of experiences I want to have.”
‘My best opportunity’
Shaft chose Notre Dame, in part, because of the caliber of the theology program, and she knew coming in that she wanted to delve deeper into her Catholic faith in an academic setting.
The major has helped her develop her ability to reason and problem-solve — while also allowing her to explore questions of faith she began pondering in high school.
“Studying theology, I have found the answers to my questions, but I always have more questions, and that’s a good thing,” Shaft said. “It’s so exciting to always want to know more in your field of study and never feel satisfied.”
Shaft, a Glynn Family Honors Scholar, was inspired to add a major in Japanese after spending 10 days in Japan in high school and becoming intrigued with the culture.
“I realized that this was my best opportunity to learn about a culture and learn the language of a country that really touched my heart when I visited,” she said. “I’m so glad I did.”
Her first moment of intersection came in the summer after her first year when she participated in a Japanese language program in Hakodate — a large seaside town on Japan’s northernmost island — with funding from the Glynn program, the Liu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies, and the Suzanne and Walter Scott Scholars Program.
Although only about 1 percent of the Japanese population is Christian, Shaft learned that there was one Catholic host family in the program, a pair of sisters in their 60s who live together, and requested that she be placed with them.
“I was intrigued by the relationship Japan has with religion and I wanted to learn more about what it’s like to be Catholic in Japan,” she said. “And it turned out, they are both very involved in the church and we were able to have some really fascinating, deep conversations about religion — and we’re still in touch now.”
Shaft also got to know a local priest and began to explore the Catholic experience in Japan — both for a research project that summer and to begin to lay the groundwork for her senior thesis.
She attended weekly mass at a Catholic church in Hakodate founded in 1877 and visited a Japanese monastery and a convent for cloistered nuns.
“It was an amazing experience, and one I never thought I would have — to be able to visit these nuns and interview them,” she said. “By the end of the summer, I had a much better grasp of the situation and had discovered different areas to explore further. It would have been so much harder to think about meaningful questions for my thesis without that experience.”
‘A nerd moment’
But Shaft’s serendipitous connections did not stop there.
When she returned to campus in fall 2019, she began taking a history course on global Catholicism with John McGreevy, the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History and former A&L dean, and realized that her knowledge of the church in Japan was directly related to what they were studying.
“I went to Professor McGreevy’s office hours because I was having this nerd moment, and I was so excited to share my experience in Japan with him,” said Shaft, who also has a minor in history. “And taking that chance has opened so many doors.”
McGreevy asked Shaft to be a research assistant for his upcoming book about global Catholicism. In that role, she has examined Catholicism in Africa and the Church’s role in Chilean human rights abuses and is now working on editing the book.
She was slated to go to Ghana this summer, before pandemic-related travel restrictions were enacted, and hopes to go next year.
“That one experience in Japan has led to so many opportunities to examine how my faith is influenced by being an American Catholic and how the church really is universal,” she said. “Even though there are many differences in the Catholic experience across the world, you can see the same underlying values and principles everywhere.”
“That one experience in Japan has led to so many opportunities to examine how my faith is influenced by being an American Catholic and how the church really is universal. Even though there are many differences in the Catholic experience across the world, you can see the same underlying values and principles everywhere.”
‘The beauty of it’
Shaft’s experiences in Japan and working as a research assistant on campus have shown her the breadth of what humanities research can be — and given her confidence in her own abilities as a researcher.
“In Japan, I learned that you may not always know where your research is going, but if you take initiative, trust yourself, and put in the work, you can end up with a good finished project,” Shaft said.
“Then, researching with Professor McGreevy has solidified the aspects I didn’t experience in Japan, like reading through books and quickly summarizing them — which was daunting for me at first. But it taught me self-confidence because I’ve learned that I can do research that has value to a faculty member and contribute to his work.”
Shaft hopes to return to Japan to conduct additional research for her senior thesis. She is eager to embark on that project next year — and to continue to study what she is most passionate about.
“What I value so much about my liberal arts education is that through every class I choose to take — whether it’s history or theology or Japanese — I’m able to create the education I want for myself and synthesize all these different things I’m learning about. Being able to take classes that on the surface don’t have anything to do with each other and find connections and new avenues forward that align with your interests — that’s the beauty of it.”
“What I value so much about my liberal arts education is that through every class I choose to take, I’m able to create the education I want for myself ... Being able to take classes that on the surface don’t have anything to do with each other and find connections and new avenues forward that align with your interests — that’s the beauty of it.”