If there's one thing that Taylor Bean and Robyn Land have in common, it's the spark in their eyes - the kind of highonlife excitement that draws people in to their enthusiasm - and an eagerness that comes from following one's dreams.
As just two of the nearly 150 students currently studying at the Boucher Institute of Naturopathic Medicine in New Westminster, both Bean and Land are midway through studies that will, they hope, lead them to careers helping people and being advocates for a field of health care that is still plagued by plenty of misconceptions (for more on naturopathic medicine in B.C., see related story below).
"I was going to become a high school teacher. But my focus changed," says Bean.
The Cranbrook native, now 29, finished a degree at King's University in Edmonton with the goal of following it up with a teaching degree - but along the way she realized that, though she loved being involved in education, it wasn't going to be the right fit.
"I knew I also wanted to be in health care," she recalls.
But none of the traditional paths - like a career as a dietitian or in physiotherapy - appealed.
But then the pieces fell into place as she explored the possibility of naturopathic medicine.
"It was something that fit all my needs in what I wanted to do: education, nutrition, physical medicine, people. And the challenge - every patient is different. It was what I wanted."
For her fellow student Land, the arrival at Boucher was also like a puzzle coming together.
Land's work as a doula and in yoga, as well as her interest in health and community along with an educational background in environment, made the naturopathic health-care field an ideal fit.
Land, who runs a yoga studio in the Brentwood area of Burnaby, says it all began when an acquaintance mentioned Boucher's clinic to her - after making an appointment and seeing an ND for the first time, she said she knew she'd found her calling.
"I was just blown away - it was just awe-some. That holistic way of looking at health (was appealing)," she says.
She immediately began to explore the option of entering the school as a student.
Bean and Land have something else in common, along with their counterparts at the school - being among the few who get through a rigorous and stringent application process.
Each year, between 100 and 125 people apply to get into the school - only 36 are accepted to begin the four-year program. (The school has recently begun to offer a part-time six-year program as well.)
All students must already have completed an undergraduate degree at an accredited post-secondary institution and must meet certain prerequisite requirements, including course work in biology, organic chemistry, psychology and more.
Mark Williams, director of admissions at the school, says the challenge of qualifying as a student means those who enter the demanding program are extremely committed - their attrition rate, correspondingly, is incredibly low.
Last year, for example, the school graduated a complete cohort of 36 students - not one had dropped out over the four-year process.
"There's a lot of factors to that (low attrition rate) beyond the application process," he says.
Students are typically very personally committed to the lifestyle and philosophical approach, he says.
As well, the small class sizes and close relationships among students and teachers means that those who may be struggling are likely to be spotted and supported, rather than falling through the cracks.
It's those small classes that appealed to Bean, who knew from her past educational experiences that she would be more likely to thrive in a close-knit setting; she was also accepted to a major naturopathic college in Ontario but opted for Boucher in part because of that.
"I love the feel of the school," she says. "It's a great place to be."
Located at the Columbia SkyTrain station in downtown New Westminster, the school is spread out over several floors of a building, with administrative offices on the main floor, classrooms and a library on the second floor, and a clinic on the third.
The clinic is used as a teaching facility - patients are cared for by a licensed naturopathic doctor in a team with two senior students, giving the students the opportunity for hands-on training. It's a successful model, says Amy Juschka, the school's communications officer.
"We have about 650 patients a month in here," she says, during a tour of the facilities with The Record.
A patient's first appointment, she notes, is an hour to an houranda-half long.
"It's a thorough physical assessment," she said. "They look at the system as a whole, not just treating one specific issue. They're looking at the underlying (issues)."
She says the philosophy of "doctor as teacher" is a critical one and guides the relationship between patients and doctors.
"It's really a core philosophy," she said.
The field of naturopathic medicine has become increasingly popular in recent years, though Juschka notes that there are still "many, many misconceptions" in the public.
"There's not a good understanding of what NDs do," she said. "Particularly because it's not the same in every province (in terms of oversight). In B.C., naturopathic doctors are licensed and regulated."
In 2009, the B.C. government introduced revised legislation, allowing naturopathic physicians to have prescribing authority.
Both Bean and Land say they've encountered some resistance when telling people about their career plans but, for the most part, their families and friends have been encouraging and positive.
"Being part of something that's new to people is exciting in its own way," says Bean. "It's very rewarding to start talking about what you do and have people ask questions."
Land says her enthusiasm has also been infectious to those around her.
"They see how inspired I am, they can see me going through the process, and I think it makes people excited too," she says.
The facility is in a period of change and growth: in the spring, the school announced it would be launching a naturopathic midwifery program; in February, they're hosting a symposium in Vancouver on neurological conditions; and a natural health store is slated to open in the new year on the school's main floor, with easy access to Columbia Street. Additionally, they're hoping to move the clinic to the ground floor, expanding it to allow more patients to be seen.
"We have a real commitment to being here in New Westminster," says Juschka. "New Westminster has been great, very supportive to our efforts - and this is an exciting time for us."
For more information about the school, see www. binm.org.