Karen Jaenke, PhD
Chair, Consciousness & Transformative Studies
John F. Kennedy University

Consciousness Studies in Context

With seeds in the Human Potential Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, Consciousness Studies is a pioneering field within academia. Still today, Consciousness Studies is a cutting edge, alternative course of study existing in only a handful of universities throughout the nation and world.

The Consciousness and Transformative Studies program at John F. Kennedy University, located in the San Francisco Bay area and established in the late 1970s as the first accredited Masters in Consciousness Studies, stands as a leader in this field.

A Brief History

The Consciousness & Transformative Studies MA program at John F. Kennedy University offers a unique leading-edge interdisciplinary curriculum that has successfully attracted graduate students across a 40-year span.

The program had its inception when Pascal Kaplan, Ph.D. and David Surrenda, Ph.D. teamed up to found a formal MA program in Interdisciplinary Consciousness Studies, with a primary focus on self-awareness and spirituality. Kaplan and Surrenda designed and implemented the first accredited graduate program in consciousness studies in the U.S, and the first Masters graduates in Interdisciplinary Consciousness Studies completed their degree in 1981.

Since that time, the program has gone through various iterations and name changes, overseen by four program chairs, who have successfully adapted the program to meet emerging cultural trends and institutional challenges. Each program chair has championed the program amidst naysaying voices in order to maintain its integrity and continuing existence.

During the 1980s the program was almost disbanded. Susan Galvan, MA, Program Chair and Assistant Dean from 1982 – 89, was a real fighter and saved the program from demise by bringing more academic rigor along with coursework in professional development. During the 1980s, she also brought in well-known transpersonal teachers, including Fritjof Capra, Angeles Arrien, Ken Wilbur and Arthur Young, to teach in the foundational Paradigms of Consciousness course.

In 1989 the program name was changed to Consciousness Studies. In 1990, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) put the Consciousness Studies program on probation, giving it two to three years to become more academically rigorous. Vernice Solimar, Ph.D. who took over as Program Chair the prior year, staved off potential closure by WASC by raising academic standards and performance. Since then, the program has consistently passed WASC accreditation reviews.

In response to economic demands to translate the degree into right livelihood, in 2003 Marilyn Fowler, Ph.D. was hired as Program Chair to further develop the Professional Development track, adding career-oriented courses in the areas of business, coaching, teaching, curriculum development, writing and publishing.

In 2005, the program underwent a major yearlong redesign and revision, with a name change to Consciousness and Transformative Studies, reflecting a new emphasis on personal transformation as an integral part of the degree. Also, four optional specializations were created for students who want to focus their studies in a particular area – dream studies, culture, healing and philosophy and religion. This more robust curriculum made the program very viable and compelling, and enrollment increased from the mid-30s to a high of 55 students.

During these years, the Consciousness Studies program spawned several leading-edge Certificate programs: Dream Studies Certificate (1998-2008), founded by Fariba Bogzaran, Ph.D.; Personal & Professional Coaching Certificate (2001-2008) (with the School of Professional Psychology and the School of Career Development); and the Ecotherapy Certificate (2010-2014), founded by Craig Chalquist, Ph.D.

In 2013, Karen Jaenke, Ph.D., then Director of the Ecotherapy Certificate, took over as Program Chair. She implemented revisions to the curriculum and Program Learning Outcomes to once again make it more robust, incorporating current emphases on human development, living systems theory, evolution of consciousness, participatory action research and leadership development. Reflecting a growing demand for practical application of the degree into real world situations, the current Program Mission is Consciousness-in-Action— that is, creative action that expands consciousness and human potential and fosters conscious leadership in service of personal, organizational, cultural and ecological change

In 2015-16, Dr. Jaenke mobilized institutional support and WASC approval to expand Consciousness Studies into the online modality, to run in parallel with the existing onsite program. The new online program, designed to meet growing requests for this course of study from national and international audiences, will launch in Fall 2016. The online modality speaks to a growing national and global interest in the breadth and depth that consciousness studies imparts, with an underlying aim of increasing the conscious footprint on the planet.

Program Philosophy

The current Consciousness and Transformative Studies curriculum draws on three traditional academic disciplines: philosophy, psychology and religious studies. In addition, it incorporates the new sciences of living systems theory, neuroscience, quantum physics and cosmology. Finally, the program addresses cultural perspectives through courses in diversity, myth, ritual and symbol, shamanism and ancestral consciousness. Thus, a rich blend of ancient wisdom and contemporary perspectives inform the study of consciousness.

At JFKU, Consciousness and Transformative Studies brings a dual emphasis on consciousness principles and practices. The “Transformative” part of the curriculum enters into the picture as most courses explore consciousness both conceptually and personally. Students are asked to engage the material by applying consciousness principles to oneself, and by exploring and engaging various transformative practices that aid in the expansion and transformation of one’s own consciousness.

An ideal outcome of the curriculum is that its graduates come to accept responsibility for all states of consciousness arising within oneself, releasing all vestiges of a stance that negates any experience or displaces blame for one’s own subjective states onto external circumstances or others—i.e., victim consciousness, an inherently disempowering stance. Simply put, a major goal of the curriculum is to foster a high level of awareness and accountability for one’s own states of consciousness. Thus one of the formal Program Learning Outcomes targets the capacity to “demonstrate awareness and accountability for one’s subjective states, stage development, and impact on the inter-subjective field, using psychological and spiritual principles and practices.”

The program recognizes that consciousness that is relatively integrated and transparent, in the sense that fragmented and shadow aspects of the self are brought under awareness and accountability, can become a significant force for good and wholeness in the world. Conversely, split or dissociative consciousness is apt to produce division in the world. Thus, it is not just a richer, multi-perspectival conceptual understanding of consciousness that the program seeks to foster; it also seeks to generate more integrated consciousness – consciousness capable of taking creative action in the world from a place of integrity and empowerment. To restate, the core mission of the program is Consciousness-in-action.

In creating practitioners of conscious awareness, a distinguishing feature of this program is its emphasis on cultivating professional skills, alongside fostering consciousness growth. Because graduates are not apt to be greeted by job announcements for a degree in Consciousness Studies, the 58-unit curriculum incorporates 8 units of professional development in order to assist graduates in translating the degree professionally. The professional development courses address areas commonly pursued by our graduates: teaching, facilitation, writing and publishing, coaching, starting your own business, and organizational consulting.

In the final year of coursework, students take four successive research classes, focusing on qualitative research. They identify and define a research topic in the interdisciplinary field of consciousness studies, and one with deep roots in their own life story. They develop a literature review and conduct participatory action research, write up and present their results. Through the rigor of the final integrative project, students cultivate an area of expertise within the broad field of consciousness studies, which can then be applied professionally.


The current interest in online Consciousness Studies, along with the technological capability to deliver that curriculum, may point to a promising trend—the growing popularization and application of consciousness principles and practices. With the findings of neuroscience research, mindfulness practices are becoming mainstream. The business world increasingly recognizes the productive benefits of stress-reduction, mindfulness and emotional intelligence. Google now offers a two-day “Search Inside Yourself Leadership,” a mini-course in consciousness studies. The planetary ecological crisis, wide economic disparities, and the emerging global consciousness spawned by internet technology, are together creating new conditions for humanity to wake up. Amidst these necessities and possibilities, formal graduate education in consciousness studies can play a vital role in generating conscious leaders who can accelerate consciousness growth across the planet.

JFKU Consciousness & Transformative Studies Program Karen Jaenke, MDiv, PhD