Spirituality and the Ivy League

If you are a Harry Potter fan like me, you are probably still waiting for your acceptance letter to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Can you imagine a greater existence than wrapping up potions class, then heading down the hall for Defense Against the Dark Arts? Seriously, someone needs to establish this school ASAP. My friends and I would enroll immediately.

Although I didn’t study witchcraft, I found a masters program that is equally mysterious and exciting. Tucked away in New York City’s Morningside Heights in a historic building with stained glass windows and Gothic architecture…alohomora. I bring you the Spirituality Mind Body Institute (SMBI) at Teachers College, Columbia University. 

When I first discovered this mystical program, I had been searching for an experience that would allow me to study what I loved most: psychology, yoga and the arts. I had always existed in this world-between-worlds, taking every class and workshop I could to learn about diverse disciplines and how they intertwined. I loved the clinical psychology and counseling world, yet struggled to find an academic track that would welcome the study of healing practices like yoga and energy work. Much to my muggle heart’s delight, these practices were only the tip of the iceberg at SMBI. 

Whether you are a Reiki master, fascinated by Vedic astrology, or have no earthly idea why people meditate but would be interested in giving it a go, SMBI is a place where it can happen. You don’t have to be zen, you don’t have to be religious, and you don’t have to be an award-winning scholar (although all three are most certainly welcome). Much like Hogwarts, all that is “required” beyond the normal scope of academia is a curious mind and a willingness to sharpen your senses.

I will say that I was raised Catholic, and still identify as being part of the Catholic religion, although my beliefs and personal practices have shifted since my Sunday school days. While they may overlap, spirituality and religion are not the same construct, and can carry drastically different meanings for every person. For me this is a beautiful aspect of spirituality; where one might find truth in reading a holy text, I find it in music and song. Where one person can find freedom during a silent meditation, another may find it in movement. We can experience the same feeling of transcendence in different ways across traditions, both religious and secular.

Enrolling in SMBI served a few purposes for my life path; I wanted to narrow down my interests within the psych field, study in a big city and explore wellness practices I was curious about. What followed was a highly creative, transformational journey to knowing my true self.

During my time as a grad student, I studied with psychologists, filmmakers, comedians and indigenous healers. The teacher in me found a home leading mindfulness workshops at the Wellness Center, and my research mind was activated as a senior research assistant in the Spirituality and Psychology Lab. As a musician at heart, I engaged in a powerful artistry and spirituality course where I learned how to harness the power of my creative energy and singing voice (shout-out to my teacher Barnet Bain, a true wizard). 

Over time, I learned that my personal journey at SMBI was less about finding spirituality in the traditional sense, and more about learning to connect with my deepest gifts. From researching the science behind flow states to chatting with world leaders at the UN, the masters program also gave me the knowledge and confidence to speak up about things that matter. Most  importantly, the experience revealed to me that all of the intellect and formal education in the world cannot come close to our innate wisdom and intuition.

When studying a topic like spirituality in an Ivy League setting, there are bound to be inherent challenges (fortunately, none as intense as defeating He Who Must Not Be Named). Academia and higher education come with their own unique set of hardships, and studying spirituality amidst the hustle culture of NYC was a lesson in itself. Beyond the standard academic requirements, I was constantly reflecting, reexamining my beliefs, uncovering answers and then asking more questions. 

Today, I can say that as a result of this experience, my mind is far more open. My heart is more open. I’m more aware of my strengths and also the areas where I can improve. My colleagues have turned into incredible friends – wildly creative, intuitive, hilarious, gifted friends – who inspire me to believe in bigger things every day. I invite you to find colleagues who may have different beliefs than yours; we have so much to learn from those who are walking a different path than ours.

While my younger self would have never predicted that she’d end up in such an eclectic masters program, I think she would be proud. I am grateful for this experience, and encourage everyone to embrace a topic or experience you are curious about. Feeling skeptical? Just start exploring. Sometimes when we follow our curiosity, we learn more about ourselves than we ever could have imagined in the first place.


Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

by tiannafaye

Tianna is a performing artist and writer based in New York City. She holds an M.A. from Columbia University, where she studied psychology, artistry, and spirit-mind-body practice. As a writer, Tianna enjoys covering topics in wellness, travel, and mental health. With a passion for service and a dedication to authentic storytelling, her work has been featured on Yoga Girl, Thrive Global, TWLOHA, and more.

Say hello + follow along:
IG: @tiannafayee


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