Naropa University: Boulder’s iconic hub for contemplative studies

Sparks fly at Boulder’s Tibetan Buddhist-inspired university, where the East meets the West

By Tatyana Sharpton Dec 23 2020

Sofia Drobinskaya, a young law school graduate from Moscow, Russia, first heard of Boulder’s Buddhist-inspired Naropa University while living in Israel, where she worked on an ecological farm.

Sofia Drobinskaya

A few years out of school, Sofia was ready for a second degree, revolving around psychotherapy, and this time, she craved a blend of the academic and experiential worlds.

“I put it into the world,” says Sofia, “and the world started answering me with the word ‘Naropa.’ People kept bringing up Naropa. After hearing the word for the third time, I said “Ok, God,’ and I went to Google it.”

A little over three years later, Sofia graduated with a Master of Arts in Psychotherapy from Naropa’s Mindfulness-based Transpersonal Counseling Program.

Jordan Quaglia

Jordan Quaglia, PhD, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania had a similar story, first experiencing a pull towards spirituality in high school when he began having lucid dreams. “I realized there’s something more happening than meets the eye,” recalls Jordan, who received his M.A. in Transpersonal Counseling Psychology from Naropa University in 2011.

Jordan and Sofia embody two of the many Naropa graduates from all over the world drawn to the university on a spiritual pull.  

With its main campus located at 2130 Arapahoe Avenue and its Paramita and Nalanda Campuses not far, the private, liberal arts university infuses meditation and contemplative studies into all of its programs.

It typically gives about 1,000 degrees a year, and includes schools such as The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, co-founded by Beatniks like Allen Ginsberg and Boulder Beat poet Anne Waldman, The School of Humanities and Interdisciplinary Studies and The School of Natural and Social Sciences.  Naropa offers 12 bachelor programs and six graduate programs, from Clinical Mental Health Counseling to Master of Divinity.

1970s counterculture revolution meets Shambhala

Naropa University‘s founding block in Boulder’s spiritual identity spun from its counterculture revolution’s collide with Chogyam Trungpa, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher who had recently founded a branch of Buddhism known as Shambhala International.

Naropa’s first summer. Image: Naropa Archives.

Tibetan Buddhism describes “Shambhala” as a fabulous, mythical kingdom with a spiritual reality as real as its geographic one.

If you didn’t grow up hearing the word, you may remember it making the news when allegations of sexual misconduct came out against Chogyam’s son, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche in 2018 and Naropa removed him from its Board of Trustees. Chogyam also had allegedly pressured young women and girls into sex, and had a reputation as the “bad boy of Buddhism.”

In June of 1974, Chogyam Trungpa organized a massive summer session of learning and brought spiritual teachers, thinkers, musicians — some of the brightest minds of the time to attend, like American poet Allen Ginsberg and psychologist Baba Ram Dass. It represented Chogyam’s revolution in education, merging the East and the West, and he called it “The Naropa Institute.”

Baba Ram Dass and Chogyam Trungpa. Image: Naropa Archives.

People from all over the world attended, including long-time Boulderites like Naropa’s president Chuck Lief, Boulder astrologer Natha Campanella’s dad David Yoder, and the parents of many Boulder-born business owners like Boxcar Coffee Roaster’s co-owner Cara Rich’s dad, David Baker, who also co-founded Naropa.

After a second successful summer, Chogyam launched a year-round degree program in 1976, and decade later, Naropa became the first accredited university in the country based in contemplative studies.

While initially heavily cross-pollinated with Shambhala, as Chogyam moved the organization’s headquarters to Halifax, Nova Scotia, Naropa broke away from it in 1987.

[Exploring ‘Old Boulder’ spirituality through its 2nd generation]

Naropa Institute. Image: Naropa Archives.

The cost

Much like artists follow romantic passions in studies like performing or fine arts, spending six figures on a Painting degree, students come to Naropa seeking a deeper knowledge of the self and the world around them.

However, according to college-price comparing website College Factual, which sources its data from the Department of Education, the degree’s financial reward does not always reflect its cost, which comes to around $146,000 for a four-year degree.

  Naropa University’s tuition cost change. Image: College Factual. 

President Chuck Lief

Research shows that degrees from Naropa cost about 20 percent more than other similar colleges, and graduates of Naropa University earn an annual average of approximately $20,000 in their early career.

Naropa’s president, Chuck Lief, tells us that the average undergraduate debt for students over the last past five years comes to about $32,000, about 14 percent higher than the national average, according to Naropa’s sources, with graduate debt averaging $100,000.

However, Chuck says that the U.S. Department of Education’s data includes all student debt for a particular student, so since many transfer from other schools, this number represents more than Naropa-related debt.

Jordan received a Graduate Research Assistantship while at Naropa, which he tells BLDRfly helped offset some of the costs.

“However, given I went on to get my Ph.D. I do still have student loans I am paying off from school altogether,” he says. “Overall, it feels workable to pay off student loans over the long-term. Beyond the professional side of how much counselors can earn, I think the investment in my own psychological growth and development at Naropa was also an added benefit I weigh when considering debt. ”

Sofia also got some assistance, initially starting with only enough money for one semester, first from her grandparents before getting employed by Naropa as a photographer and then won the women-focused PEO organization scholarship.

Many students return to the Naropa community to work or teach, like Sofia who still works as a photographer and now a psychotherapy intern, and Jordan who returned to teach in 2015 and founded Naropa’s Cognitive and Affective Science Lab, focusing on neuroscience research in meditation, emotion regulation and social life.

According to Naropa’s latest data gathered over the last five years, 68 percent of undergraduates report being employed, with 7 percent in grad school and 16 percent seeking employment. Based on the school’s surveys regarding post-graduation salary, students report making anywhere from less than $20,000 to over $70,000, with 62 percent working in a field related to their degree.

As far as graduate employment, Chuck tells us that 77 percent report being employed, with 82 percent employed in a related field to their degrees, but didn’t have data on salaries.

Naropa’s Queer Prom 2019: “Queers in Space: Welcome to the Gaylaxy.” Naropa encourages its students and employees to use a person’s preferred gender pronouns — he, she, they, etc. — and in 2016 became Boulder’s first university to install gender-neutral bathrooms. Images: Sofia Drobinskaya.

Header Image: Shambhala Day at Naropa University. Image: Sofia Drobinskaya. Image of Sofia Drobinskaya: Guy Raz.