American College of Healthcare Sciences celebrates 40 years of empowering students to lead vital lives and achieve a collective impact.
The dandelion is far more than just a nuisance. From this common weed, you can: roast and ground the root to make coffee; chop and dry the leaves to produce a liver-cleansing tea; eat or cook the leaves to jumpstart your appetite, improve an upset stomach or indigestion; apply the dandelion’s latex to heal wounds or protect from infections; or ferment the flower to create a dandelion wine.
This type of empowerment—educating students to utilize the healing resources that surround them—is a core mission of the American College of Healthcare Sciences (ACHS), an accredited natural health and botanical sciences college based in Portland, OR.
“We’re empowering people to responsibly use the Earth to its full capacity,” said Dorene Petersen, founding President of ACHS. “People can experience wellness and vitality on a day-to-day level, and with less expensive resources.”
ACHS Founding President Dorene Petersen at the Portland Campus in John’s Landing.
ACHS is one of the few accredited colleges in the US to specialize in online holistic health education. Through primarily distance learning programs, students can earn certificates and diplomas as well as associates, bachelors, and masters degrees in research-based programs such as aromatherapy, holistic nutrition, integrative health sciences, and herbal studies, amongst many others.
Petersen founded the college in 1978. She was raising two daughters by herself on a small income in Auckland, New Zealand. After completing the naturopathic program at South Pacific College of Natural Therapeutics (SPCNT) in Auckland, she was selected to develop and head their distance education department. In 1978, SPCNT proposed closing the department due to an internal change in direction. To provide a teach-out opportunity to the SPCNT distance-learning students, and with the blessings of SPCNT, Dorene founded ACHS. Petersen placed a small ad in a national TV magazine and rented a PO Box. That next week, she opened the mailbox and out poured mail from all over the world—clearly, there was a demand for health and wellness education.
Petersen bought a small house on Wahiki Island, New Zealand, to raise her children and start her business. Inventory included a fold-up card table, a second-hand IBM typewriter, and two cardboard boxes, which served as filing cabinets. On a remote island with few resources, the family naturally resorted to self-sustenance: growing food, scavenging wood, and knitting their own clothes. Petersen worked three part-time jobs while developing the college at night out of a tiny bedroom.
Almost forty years later, that tiny bedroom has evolved into an esteemed college with three locations—two in Portland and one in Hawaii—serving students from over 70 countries. “I just wanted to teach people to be able to heal themselves,” said Petersen. “I always believe that if you take care of the people and the planet, and you cross your i’s and dot your t’s, then good things will come.”
ACHS’s Portland-based staff and faculty. ACHS also has staff at its Kona, Hawaii campus and over 30 staff and faculty who telecommute from across the country.
This commitment to sustainability, be it to people or the planet, is woven into the college’s programs and operations. ACHS was just awarded #5 in Oregon Business Magazine’s Greenest Workplaces—its third consecutive top-10 finish—and became a Certified B Corp™ in 2016. Many staff and students telecommute, which reduces overall carbon output. The college sources 100% of its renewable energy within Oregon and has used non-toxic clay instead of drywall for its construction projects. ACHS’s Chief Operating Officer Tracey Abell, who has been with the college since 2002, spearheads the College’s campus management and expansion programs with an emphasis on sustainability and holistic practices. “We strive to continually communicate our commitment to sustainability and vision for modern and environmentally-friendly facilities while educating our partners and collaborating with contractors and servicers that share our mission including other B Corps,” Abell says.
ACHS Chief Operating Officer Tracey Abell.
To ACHS, sustainability goes beyond just the environment. It also means taking care of its people—providing an education that fosters passion without burning students out and granting easy access to free online resources (including an award-winning blog often quoted in major publications). Much of its staff has been with the college over 10 years, unsurprising for an organization awarded 2016 Top Workplace honors by The Oregonian.
These sustainability initiatives also extend into cultures around the world. In 2016, Petersen contributed 27 days of volunteer service on an international assignment for Winrock’s U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded Farmer-to-Farmer Program in Terai, the southern lowland area of Nepal. She worked with the Forest Environment Workers Union Nepal (FEWUN) to train farmers and forest workers—many of them women—on efficient and improved methods of essential oil processing, as well as how to assess and improve essential oil quality by focusing on organic, sustainable practices and how to strategically market essential oils in the international market.
Dorene Petersen teaching women Nepalese farmers about sustainable farming and essential oil production.
The college’s Apothecary Shoppe, located in its Portland headquarters and open to the public, donates 2% of all essential oil sales to support global sustainability education projects. Using these funds, Petersen and her team have continued to support FEWUN in 2018, specifically the women-owned Laxmi Leasehold, by funding four freshwater wells for landlocked areas.
Now, ACHS is on the verge of a significant shift: after 40 years of running the college, Petersen has decided to pass leadership onto her daughter, Erika Yigzaw, formerly the Chief Strategy Officer. “Erika really gets alternative medicine, but she’s also incredibly tech-savvy,” said Petersen. “Much of our innovation has been due to her. Our students will have a much more engaging experience moving forward.” As Yigzaw takes over main leadership duties, Petersen will still maintain a central presence within the college.
One example of Yigzaw’s innovation is within ACHS’s online curriculum. Programs are built upon principles of neuroscience—lessons are reinforced by experiential, immersive lab activities, and questions are crafted specifically to facilitate deep learning. The college sends seed packets, organic botanicals, and aromatherapy blends to students, for example, encouraging them to step away from computers and into their gardens. Programs are constantly evaluated and tailored to satisfy individual learning styles. As a result, the college boasts an impressive student satisfaction rating, with 99% reporting they’d recommend the college to a friend.
ACHS President Erika Yigzaw with her family.
One satisfied graduate is Ivy Chuang, who graduated in 2014 and now owns Blendily, an online and brick-and-mortar skincare company in Portland. Chuang’s business originated when news broke of Johnson & Johnson’s skincare products having traces of formaldehyde and cancer-causing agents. With a newborn child, as well as an interest in natural product formulation, Chuang decided it was best to make her own product, and ACHS would provide the education and accreditation to bring her business idea into fruition.
“ACHS provided a solid foundation of research-based education,” said Chuang, who admitted initial skepticism towards online learning. “I was surprised at how easily the information sunk in and how engaging the lessons were. Plus, the flexibility worked perfectly for my just having a baby.”
Blendily is in its fourth year of business and sources its materials within Oregon or from its own garden. This fall, it’s expanding to a new location off Portland’s Alberta Street.
Ultimately, ACHS hopes to create a ripple effect. “Education breeds education” is a core tenet of the college’s philosophy—that one inspired student can have a major influence on his or her immediate surroundings. “People underestimate their ability to have an impact,” said Yigzaw. “We think we’re these little cogs; but if we spread these practices, we have no idea as to the effect it can produce.”
Sir Calvin Alexander bottling essential oils at ACHS’s Oregon Tilth Certified Organic facility.
The practice of natural medicine, after all, can only sustain with a healthy planet to source from. ACHS keeps a wide scope on its education, encouraging students to be critical consumers of products and to acknowledge the entire context when making personal or professional decisions. “We teach students how to appreciate the whole picture,” said Yigzaw. “When we take care of the Earth, the Earth takes care of us.”
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