The graduation ceremony was a little out of the ordinary.
Chants of ai-ya, ai-ya echoed through the Jim Rouse Theatre at Wilde Lake High School as Diane Connelly, chancellor of Tai Sophia Institute, attempted to regain the audience's attention. Not that this was an unruly crowd: Unlike many graduations Howard County has seen, this one was free of beach balls, air horns or heckling.
Instead, audience members were urged to introduce themselves to one another, and Connelly asked grandparents, parents, spouses and children of the graduates to stand up and be recognized for their contributions to the success of the 48 new alumni.
"There are lots of great people of peace right here in this room," the speaker, Dr. Tatyana Maltseva, said with a smile.
The ceremony proceeded, and 35 graduates received master of acupuncture degrees, eight received herbal medicine degrees and five were awarded applied healing arts degrees.
The commencement ceremony Wednesday night honored the graduates of Tai Sophia in Laurel. The institute, founded in 1975 as a small healing arts clinic, has grown to become one of the nation's top academic institutions for wellness-based education. The institute boasts nearly 1,000 alumni and was named the 2006 Business of the Year by the Howard County Chamber of Commerce.
Though the graduation was not wholly traditional, that was fine with the graduates. Many of them had chosen Tai Sophia to help them make the switch from more traditional jobs to careers in alternative medicine.
Don James, who received a master of acupuncture degree, is one such individual.
Originally from western Kentucky, James, 56, received a bachelor's degree from the State University of New York at Albany, where he studied math and atmospheric science.
"Basically, I was this close to being a weatherman," James said with a laugh.
He worked for the mayor's office in New York City before moving to Columbia in the early 1970s. He worked for the Department of Justice for about 10 years, then held leadership roles in marketing and sales for a variety of companies.
James' wife had been receiving acupuncture treatment for years when she suggested that he try it for his high blood pressure. The treatments worked for James, and his blood pressure dropped 20 points.
"I was sitting there in the [acupuncturist's] waiting room and I noticed everyone's faces as they were leaving," recalled James. "They were serene, peaceful - even joyful. I thought, I'd like to do that on a daily basis. I'd like to have a job where I can make people walk away with a good perspective."
James' wife and the acupuncturist encouraged him to pursue his interest in alternative medicine, and he began what he calls "the bold life in service to others" in 2003 when he enrolled at Tai Sophia.
James, who fulfilled all of the institute's academic requirements last fall, has opened his practice, Ling Tai, in Columbia. He said that acupuncture can benefit people with common ailments including back problems, migraines, allergies, post-traumatic stress disorder, road rage and drug addiction.
"It helps with working-mom guilt and what I call 'frozen heart,' a difficulty feeling emotions," the father of two said. "One of my most important roles is to wake up my patient. Are they living on automatic? Are they waking up and just reliving the day before? I want to introduce new ways of living life."
Diane Juray, also a master's degree recipient, said that one attraction of acupuncture is that "it doesn't involve putting anything unnatural into our bodies, anything that we don't know the effects of. Acupuncture is basically the body doing what it does best: healing itself."
Like James, Juray made the switch to acupuncture after having positive experiences with the practice. She had been sick in the early 1990s and found that Western medicine had not worked for her, but alternative forms, such as acupuncture, seemed to help a lot.
"I wanted to help others like I had been helped," said Juray, 50.
The New York native received an undergraduate degree from the State University of New York at Binghamton, where she studied math and art history, and she attended Cambridge College for graduate school. She stayed in New York and worked for a number of years in engineering software for a defense company.
Juray made the decision to attend Tai Sophia while she and her husband were living and working in the Marshall Islands.
"I've had an interest in complementary medicine since I can remember," Juray said.
"It ended up being about timing," she said. "I got laid off, and it was like the universe was telling me it was time to do what I had been wanting to do for so long."
The institute was what brought Juray, now a Columbia resident, to the area.
"I looked online for schools that offered acupuncture programs, and [my husband and I] visited probably 15 to 20 all over the country when we came on vacation," Juray said. "I eventually picked Tai Sophia. ... It has given me a very, very positive experience that I could not have gotten anywhere else."
Juray hopes to practice acupuncture part time and teach or write. She says that she would like to teach at Tai Sophia, or with wellness programs around the community.
Dart Clancy did not come to Columbia just to attend Tai Sophia. The 33-year-old grew up in the area and attended Wilde Lake High School before becoming an English major at the University of Maryland, College Park.
"I became interested in complementary healing modalities through working at a local health food store. I began talking to people and reading about plant-based healing and complementary medicine," Clancy said. "I decided that I was interested in pursuing these interests, and I even considered medical school."
However, Clancy said, when Tai Sophia began its herbal medicine program in 2001, which was closely followed by the institute's decision to offer financial aid, she saw no other choice.
"It made so much sense," she said. "Here was Tai Sophia, right where I grew up, offering me everything I wanted to pursue my dream."
She added: "The main goal of herbal medicine is to help others to empower themselves to heal. It combines diet, lifestyle and herbs. It brings together traditions of the East and West. ... It's great because it brings together art and science."
Clancy plans to remain in the community and is practicing as a resident clinician at Tai Sophia.
Heather Wandell is another Tai Sophia graduate who has been a lifelong Howard County resident. After attending Howard Community College and Salisbury University, Wandell received a bachelor's degree in marketing from the University of Baltimore.
She spent 13 years doing adult day programming at Winter Growth Adult Day Center in Columbia, the job that brought her to Tai Sophia.
"At the time, I was working doing adult day programming. We were trying to incorporate new, different things into our programs. We kept having people from Tai Sophia, and I heard a speaker from COGS [The Coalition of Geriatric Services]," she said. "It turns out, he was a faculty member of Tai Sophia. I was just so inspired, and I thought, 'I want to check it out.' I signed up for a two-week course, but I was just so hungry to learn, I could not get enough."
On Wednesday, the 45-year-old mother of two received a master's degree in applied healing arts.
"Applied healing arts is not hands-on," she said. "We are folks who use the spoken word as a tool the way acupuncturists use needles to stimulate energy. We provide a different way of looking at something, a different way to approach any situation.
"It's about service," she added. "How can I best serve the people around me?"
After becoming a certified laughter leader with the World Laughter tour, Wandell started a Web site, www.anotherway toseeit.com, in which she integrates lessons from Tai Sophia with her experiences. She writes weekly columns on the site and holds workshops.
Wandell recalled a recent lesson that the president and co-founder of Tai Sophia, Robert Duggan, passed on to the graduates, many of whom were feeling nervous about coming challenges.
"How dare you not do it! You will deprive people of your gift," he said. "How dare you deprive the people from my community of your gift!"