Scholarship and Transformation: East-West Psychology Alum Adina Morguelan Ascher
For some of us who are more familiar with clinical-oriented psychology, East-West Psychology is a bit of an unknown. How would you describe it?
It’s a theoretical psychology that focuses on the intersection between psychology, spirituality, and philosophy. It can be applied phenomenologically or heuristically, but in general I’d say it’s more theoretical.
Many philosophy programs are centered on a cannon of white dudes in Western philosophy. EWP has that plus a whole range of other scholars and voices. We extensively studied Indian philosophy, which set the groundwork for much of Western philosophical thought. I also was able to take courses in other departments, including an Asian Philosophies class on the trickster in Tibetan Buddhism and a course in Expressive Arts Therapy.
Western academia in general tends to focus on Eurocentric content, and I feel lucky to have had a glimpse into other ways of knowing and understanding these deeper subjects.
Tell us a little about your journey — how did you find your way to CIIS?
As an undergraduate I was really interested in feminist theory and psychology. My major was women’s studies, and I had a minor in psychology. What came up for me in women’s studies was the deconstruction of everything. We broke down all these systems and ideas, but there was no action plan. I wanted to know how we could rebuild everything in a postmodern way. Becoming a social worker was my way of addressing the need to rebuild.
It was my therapist, a graduate of the Somatic Psychology program, who encouraged me to go to CIIS for my PhD. She was a phenomenal therapist who I saw for over 13 years and totally changed the trajectory of my life. She suggested that I go to a Public Programs workshop on EWP, and that was it. I had found my tribe.
Since I was interested in power, sexuality, sexual orientation, and gender, I was a little bit outside the typical range of EWP students. My dissertation on the intersection of multiple marginalized queer identities can sound more like a PsyD than an EWP topic. But because I was interested in critiquing the way we know things in society, I learned to study alternative practices and theories in an academic way. The combination of spirituality and psychology, and the freedom to study what I wanted and do the research I wanted to do was super appealing.
How do you weave your EWP experience into being a social worker?
I was licensed while I was in the program in September 2012, so I saw clients throughout my time as a CIIS student. Using my research, I ended up creating what is essentially an evolution of the Kinsey scale that takes a broader view of gender and sexuality. Now about 60% of the clients I see are in the gender/sexuality umbrella, and my research informs the way I work with them.
I’ve also been involved with The Liberation Institute for over a decade, and it has been the brightest spot in my world for a long time. I am currently the Clinical Director there, and all things under the LGBTQ umbrella are a constant topic of conversation in supervision.
Who inspired you in graduate school? How were they a game-changer?
Jorge Ferrer, who is absolutely brilliant. Taking Jorge’s theoretical research class changed everything for me. He helped me find my own voice as a scholar and taught me that my unique perspective as a student was rooted in my experience as a person. In his class, I did a literature review that ended up being the core of my dissertation.
How did CIIS prepare you for the rewarding parts of your career?
I went into EWP thinking I would learn content — specifically the intersection between philosophy and religion, which I did. But what really happened for me was the program helped push me along my path of personal transformation. EWP helped me identify myself as a scholar and use my personal experience within my academic work.
The program helped strengthen my level of confidence. The most rewarding part of my work is being trusted to sit with people and hear their stories. I learned to feel confident that I am the professional in the room and that I am capable of holding all of the client’s experience.
The philosophical theories I learned at CIIS also help me interpret or frame my understanding of the client’s issues. I believe the meaning of life is to make your life have meaning. The primary goal of therapy is to help the client understand how they make meaning for themselves. Then we work with them to articulate and expand that.
Is there advice you’d want to give future EWP students?
I think it’s helpful going into the PhD to have a clinical master’s degree. Not everyone does, but I think it makes a big difference in the way people engage with the material. It enriched my experience and helped me glean more from what I was reading.
I would also want new students to know that being at CIIS is so special. It’s a unique place that draws people there for similar reasons. It’s one of the only times I’ve had that experience, and I feel so grateful to have been there.
What’s next for you? What are you excited about?
I think probably what’s next is going into teaching. When I originally got a PhD, I thought ultimately I would teach, but I didn’t want to be a lecturer in a big hall, so I veered away from teaching toward clinical work and supervision. Ultimately I would like to teach anything related to philosophy, religion, gender studies, or psychology.
Personally my wife and I are hoping to have a kid in the next year and are talking about moving to Humboldt. I feel lucky that I have a career that can be independent and allows for a lot of self- determination.