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Healthy Growth: Wellness School Tai Sophia Seeks University Status

Frank Vitale, M.B.A. President and Chief Executive Officer at Tai Sophia Institute - Photo by Ariann
Frank Vitale, M.B.A. President and Chief Executive Officer at Tai Sophia Institute - Photo by Ariann
A business park in suburban Laurel seems like an unlikely spot for one of the nation’s premier wellness schools.

But once on the 13-acre campus of the Tai Sophia Institute, the image of suburban office parks gives way to the smell of homemade organic soup, the sight of acupuncturists in white coats and a student-run botanical garden.

It's here that students from around the nation flock to learn how to deliver integrative health practices that draw both from ancient healing traditions and contemporary medicine. Education gleaned at Tai Sophia can translate to some of the fasting growing careers. U.S. News and World Report listed health and wellness coaches as an "ahead of the curve" career. Business magazine Kiplinger predicted wellness coaches as a profession that will add jobs in the coming years.

Rising health care costs and disillusionment with mainstream medicine are fueling the surging interest in integrative health (which includes the use of acupuncture, meditation, and herbal supplements). They also help explain Tai Sophia Institute's explosive growth. It will enroll 600 students in the fall, compared with 375 just three years ago. It’s added a number of new programs and degrees and is seeking university status within the next three years.

"We're busting at the seams," says Frank Vitale, president of Tai Sophia Institute. With 13 acres, Vitale says the campus has room to grow, and may lease the 38,000-square-foot building formerly occupied by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory for more classrooms. "We must take on additional physical facilities," Vitale says.

The power to heal

An interest in health and wellness and a promising career led Chicago native Maureen George, 32, to the Howard County school.

The former health educator craved more knowledge about nutrition as she was working to improve school lunches in Chicago’s school systems. After losing 70 pounds by changing her eating habits and her relationship with food, George says she could “see the power that food has to heal people.”

She also saw promising data from the U.S. Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. Federal data shows employment in the field of nutrition will grow 14 percent over the next decade. Tai Sophia’s new masters’ degree program in Nutrition and Integrative Health proved the perfect fit for George, enrolled in it inaugural class.

Launched in 1974 as the Traditional Acupuncture Institute, the institute changed its name in 2000 to reflect its broadening coursework. In 2006, it received accreditation by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, which accredits degree-granting colleges and universities in Maryland. Since then, the institute has launched additional graduate programs, including a Master of Science in Therapeutic Herbalism, a Masters in Oriental Medicine, a Master of Science in Nutrition and Integrative Health program, and others.

From institute to university 

These new programs have helped grow the student population. But now the school wants to add university to its status.

With an anticipated fiscal year 2013 operating budget of $11 million -- derived mainly from its $600-per-credit tuition plus private donations – Tai Sophia will evolve from a private 501(c)(3) nonprofit to a full-fledged university. University status likely would entail partnering closely with area community colleges. Ultimately, it would allow Tai Sophia to offer upper-division undergraduate courses, bachelor's degrees, doctoral degrees, and an increased focus on research.

The process of applying to become a university, which requires approval from both the Maryland Higher Education Commission and the Middle States Commission on Higher Education and has not formally begun, would take an estimated two to three years. In the world of higher education, prestige comes with being recognized as a university, Vitale says.

Getting consumers to take greater responsibility for their health cuts to the core of Tai Sophia's training.

"What people don't understand is that wellness isn't just the absence of disease,” says Judith Broida, vice president for Academic Affairs at Tai Sophia. “It's a proactive approach to mind, body, and spirit.”

This philosophy has begun to resonate with the public, which spends $34 billion annually on alternative medicine, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It's not just individual consumers who are buying in. So, too, are employers. Studies by Ron Z. Goetzel, research professor and director of Emory University's Institute for Health and Productivity Studies and vice president of Consulting and Applied Research at Thomson Reuters, showed the median ROI of workplace wellness initiatives offer a median return of investment of about $3.14 for every dollar spent.

With this in mind, Charlene Rothkopf of Potomac enrolled in Tai Sophia's graduate certificate in Health and Wellness Coaching to help her reach her goal.

Since then, she's founded Wellness Consulting Group LLC, which brings a wellness perspective to executive coaching.

"I think I'm at the right place at the right time," Rothkopf says.
 
Elizabeth Heubeck is a Baltimore-based freelance writer, covering topics as diverse as parenting and public health. She writes for several local print and web outlets, universities, and medical centers. She last wrote about aging boomers for Bmore Media. 

CAPTIONS
Photos by Arianne Teeple

- Frank Vitale, CEO of Tai Sophia Institute
- Eleonora Gafton, herbal medicine apprentice in the Master of Science in Herbal Medicine Program works in the herbal dispensary at Tai Sophia 
- Student Ellen Pucciarelli practices on student Michael Perfetto in an acupuncture class at Tai Sophia 
- A skeleton model in the acupuncture class at Tai Sophia 
- Frank Vitale, Tai Sophia CEO
- The Natural Care Center at Tai Sophia 
- Tai Sophia Institute
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