Caroline Ferrante wears a truly impressive array of hats. Aside from being an award-winning singer-songwriter, she’s also a stage actor, teacher, and Americana radio DJ. Oh, and she has a master’s degree in curriculum design and conducts arts workshops with marginalized student populations. In short, she couldn’t have a better combination of skills to make her an ideal instructor for Beyond Admitted.
Ferrante shares the feature of theater that first attracted her: its power as a vehicle for understanding someone else’s experience. When playing an extra in a production of Romeo and Juliet at the Illinois Theater Center in her native southside Chicago, something clicked when she experienced the powerful feeling of walking in someone else’s shoes for the first time.
“I was hooked,” she says. “I thought, maybe if I try on different personas, I can learn more about who I am.”
In Beyond Empathy: Our Story Matters, students from disparate backgrounds will do just that, in sessions where they work together to practice skills such as identifying bias, active listening, character research, and acting. In the process, they will enhance their emotional intelligence, a skill Ferrante foregrounds as critical for good citizenship as well as career success.
“Beyond Admitted is doing something truly novel, something that’s so important right now,” she says. “At a time when we have college admission scandals and are realizing that standardized testing is culturally skewed, when children have grown up in cultural space lacking kindness and with social media that invites self-centeredness, Beyond Admitted is an excellent solution.”
Throughout her career, Ferrante has been impressed by how engaging in the arts can have profound effects on students’ capacity for empathy. In her theater workshops, she works with many students on the autism spectrum. Although people with autism typically struggle to intuit others’ emotions, taking on the role of a character pushes them to enact another person’s perspective. In those rehearsals, she has seen powerful transformations occur.
“It can be as simple as learning to give and take with other actors doing an improv exercise,” she says, or learning to use tone of voice, gestures, or facial expressions to convey empathy to another character.
“I noticed that they started to respond to fellow students, and seemed more attuned.”
Ferrante also highlights the importance of socioeconomic diversity for empathy-building through the arts, a factor she recognizes as having been formative in her own life. By joining a kids’ theater group in Chicago, she had the opportunity to interact with many young people from backgrounds different from her own.
Through the theater group, she learned to appreciate diversity from a young age. At home, she had encountered racist viewpoints, so she is grateful she had the influence of an environment where kids from all races and ethnicities were welcomed.
“That got me at an important time, and helped form who I am today,” she explains. “Otherwise, I might have gone down other roads.”
The roads Ferrante has chosen often find her amplifying the voices of those who may otherwise go unheard, whether she’s celebrating the music of a little-known Americana artist on her radio show or conducting a songwriting workshop with sexual assault victims.
Through exploring the arts, she adds, people learn that their voice matters, and “crucially, they also learn that other people’s voices matter.”