This year, Pacific College of Oriental Medicine (PCOM) turns 30. Since PCOM opened in 1986, the San Diego campus has seen about 2500 master’s and massage graduates, New York about 2100, Chicago 700, and PCOM has hosted thousands of attendees at 27 years of the Pacific Symposium.
In 1986, the California Acupuncture College (CAC) closed, leaving many students adrift. CAC had had three campuses across the state, but was the only school of traditional Chinese medicine in San Diego. Joseph Lazzaro, Richard Gold, Ana de Vedia, and Alex Tiberi, all former administrators or faculty of the CAC, founded Pacific College to ensure that the stranded CAC students could complete their studies and take the California licensing exam. None knew at the time if they would continue past that first group of students.
Lazzaro was the first campus director of the San Diego branch of the CAC, De Vedia was Lazzaro’s first employee, and Tiberi and Gold were two of his first teachers. While the intervening thirty years have proven that their decision to start Pacific College was a good one, starting a new acupuncture college from the ashes of a failed institution took a commitment to and confidence in the medicine.
"When I first started at Pacific College there were 49 students," said Elaine Gates-Miliner, currently PCOM’s chief compliance officer and Chicago campus director, though she has filled vital roles on all three campuses since 1987. "It was a night school with no financial aid, and the median age of the students was 35 years old. Students who came to the school were often going into their 2nd or 3rd career."
PCOM had practically outgrown the house on Fifth by the time it moved in, so in 1987, the campus relocated again, this time to a 7,000 square-foot building a few blocks away on Washington Street. The new space had three dedicated classrooms and two offices, a student lounge, a library, and a clinic.
By 1988, it was clear that the school could grow. PCOM needed an administrator who had the skills to earn accreditation and a vision of the future of the medicine. The founders hired Jack Miller, a graduate of the last 1986 class of the California Acupuncture College who had the right combination of business acumen and acupuncture experience, and made him a full partner. For the next 20 years, these five met every Tuesday for lunch to enjoy each other’s company and chart the growth of Pacific College.
Just a year later, the first Pacific Symposium was held in San Diego. De Vedia and Lazzaro had been inspired by a talk given by Ted Kaptchuk, now a professor of medicine at Harvard, and invited him to do a retreat in San Diego for local acupuncturists. Miller saw this as an opportunity for something bigger, reaching out to many other luminaries of acupuncture and inviting them to San Diego as well. Although de Vedia and Lazzaro had intended to host Kaptchuk’s talk in the mountains east of San Diego, Miller, ever the surfer, suggested a location closer to the beach instead.
Elaine Gates-Milliner, who ran the first Symposium with a couple of other staff members, working more or less day and night for the entire run, describes Jack as “a real ideas man, always looking for possibilities. He saw the idea of the Symposium as an ideal way to grow the college as well as the profession.” Miller’s outreach was a success: the first annual Pacific Symposium was held at Kona Kai Resort in San Diego in August 1989, attracting about 200 attendees.
Now entering its 28th year, the Symposium regularly attracts attendees from most states in the US as well as internationally. Over the years, speakers have included such famous names as Ravi Shankar, Deepak Chopra, and Steven Halpern, as well as most everyone of note in the field of Oriental medicine. In the early 90s, there were even a few Atlantic Symposiums, two in Boston and one in New York.
Through the efforts of faculty, founders, and administrators, PCOM was accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (ACAOM) and began granting master’s degrees in 1990. The San Diego campus expanded shortly afterward, moving to its current address in Mission Valley in 1992. The campus has since expanded multiple times, eventually taking over all of its original building and the better part of two other nearby buildings.
Around the same time, New York legalized the practice of acupuncture for graduates of programs like Pacific’s. At the encouragement of local acupuncturists, Pacific applied to New York State Department of Education (NYSED) to open a branch campus in Manhattan. The campus was approved and the first classes offered in 1993 at the Ohashi Institute, which generously allowed the college to use its space. Shortly thereafter, Pacific found its home for the next twenty years at 915 Broadway in the lively Flatiron district. Trivia fans might remember that for its first five years in New York, Pacific College was known as Pacific Institute of Oriental Medicine. New York limits the term college to degree-granting institutions. In 1998, Pacific Institute earned the right to offer its master’s degrees and change its name to Pacific College.
Similar to the New York story, the rules regulating the practice of acupuncture in Illinois changed for the better in the late 90s and once again, local acupuncturists encouraged Pacific College to come to Chicago. After an even longer application process, the Illinois Board of Higher Education welcomed Pacific College to the heartland. The first Illinois campus was just around the corner from Wrigley Field. In 2010, the college moved to the Loop, in the center of city, with views of the river from its 17-21st story facility.
Program and degree offerings have expanded at each campus: massage certificates, associate degrees, an RN to BSN program, and now entry-level and post-graduate doctorates join the masters’ degrees. There are many ways for students to enter this marvelous field of healing.
“Since we founded the college, we’ve gone from practitioners of alternative medicine, to complementary medicine, and now integrative medicine. We’ve seen a huge increase in the number and diversity of patients as the medicine has become more accepted.
There is still much to accomplish, however; the medicine is still being used far too often only as a last resort. If it were used more on the front end of treatment, we could help people avoid trauma and expense—sometimes we see huge improvement after just three treatments, after hundreds of thousands of dollars made little headway. Even as far as we’ve come, there is still tremendous potential here that is yet untapped.”
-Rick Gold, founder, board member, and San Diego faculty
Off-site internships, originally piloted by de Vedia at San Diego Hospice, have played a role in connecting all three campuses to their communities. Students work at local hospitals and clinics such as New York’s Lutheran Medical Center, Chicago’s Project VIDA, and San Diego’s Rady Children’s Hospital and UCSD Cancer Research Institute, putting their classroom knowledge directly into practice while working alongside medical doctors, physical therapists, and counselors.
In 2008, PCOM formed a strategic partnership with Quad Partners, an investment firm specializing in education, giving PCOM access to even more expertise in accreditation and higher education.
In 2013, PCOM received an NIH grant for Evidence-Informed Practice: Faculty and Curriculum Development. This five-year award was to develop faculty teaching skills in evidence-informed practice along with analysis of outcomes and impact on institutional culture. In the same year, the college also began collaborations with the Albert Einstein University medical school in New York. The Pacific Center for Lifelong Learning, PCOM’s extension studies and distance education division, launched in 2014.
Pacific College of Oriental Medicine received regional accreditation from the WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC) in 2015, an achievement that reflected five years of hard work on the part of faculty, staff, and students and significant investment from its shareholders. WSCUC commended the college for its commitment to quality improvement, its shareholder support, and its investment in full-time faculty, new facilities, a modern student information system, and the addition of numerous leadership positions.
Pacific College of Oriental Medicine has grown tremendously in the past three decades, from its humble origins in a single room with a few dozen students to three large campuses, an award-winning library, and regional accreditation. The curriculum, alumni, and faculty have strengthened to meet the evolving expectations of patients of this medicine. The field itself has grown as well, in both acceptance and diversity.
“I have been privileged with a long career in Chinese medicine. I’m fortunate to call many of the wisest teachers in our field my friends. Lord knows that I needed all their help and wisdom as I guided Pacific College from its earliest state to where it is today. I’m thankful that my original partners entrusted me with their creation. I’m lucky that Elaine Gates-Miliner stayed with the college all these years. So many others have contributed to our success, too many to name individually. However, I do want to single out a few people from our early years: Kevin Ergil for helping me start Pacific in New York; Frank Scott and Clarisse Croteau-Chonka for their help in Chicago; and all my earliest faculty like Bill Helm, Z’ev Rosenberg, Cliff Lara, Charlene Penner, Greg Bantick and many others. Sorry for the Academy Award acceptance speech, but every thirty years or so, you’ve got to stop and thank at least a few of those who’ve helped along the way. Thank you, my Pacific College family.”
-Jack Miller, President