SWIHA is excited to announce the arrival of Shelley Tom as our Dean of Students, on-campus. In this newly created role, Shelley will be hold the mantle of responsibility as the Student Advocate & Success Coach, charged with ‘holding space’ for student’s academic, spiritual and personal growth, building a strong on-campus community, and leading our wonderful Student Services team.
Many of you may be familiar with the Hero’s Journey, as it is included in much of the curricula at SWIHA. A large part of Shelley’s personal Hero’s Journey started many years ago, at SWIM, Southwest Institute of Myotherapy, the name of the school as it was founded 23 years ago. In fact, Shelley was in the very first massage class the college offered. At the time, 200 hours was all that was required to be licensed as a massage therapist in Scottsdale, Arizona. Her life was forever influenced, as she learned how to open her mind and think differently about her values, her body and most importantly, about Spirit. Shelley’s training changed the way she looked at the world and how she understood the ‘mind-body-spirit’ connection. In our interview, she recalls her journey back to SWIHA, how her life changed after her initial program at SWIM, her personal and professional healing work experiences, and what she’s looking forward to helping to expand here at SWIHA!
Can you tell us a bit more about how your life was forever influenced by taking the massage program?
I was twenty years old when I was enrolled in the massage program at SWIM. It was a small class, and KC was one of only two teachers. Her passion was myotherapy; in fact, the curriculum didn’t even include Swedish massage at the time. The focus was on understanding how the body worked and how to unlock deep physical and energetic holding patterns. Looking back, I was invited to step beyond the safe patterns I had learned from my wonderful, conservative, stable family where I was taught to believe that my primary role in life was to work hard and not make waves. I can remember, even in that original class of just six students, how much the “SWIHA spirit” was present. We were encouraged to question the body’s holding patterns; we talked openly about “energy” and philosophized about life and what we believed in a safe and open way. Massage training opened me up to a new way of knowing myself and relating to my “spiritual container” – my body as a 3D instrument of the Divine: Body, mind and soul!
The invitation to be part of the massage program turned out to be an invitation to myself.
After completing the massage program, I actually changed my college degree and completed my B.S. in Psychology at ASU. During that time, I also worked at PTMC (the sister school to SWIM/SWIHA) where I served as the Student Massage Clinic Manager, as well as was Admissions Director before leaving Arizona. For the last 13 years, my family and I have resided in Asheville, NC.
What is the story behind choosing to move to Asheville? What was the pull?
After my husband, Rob, and I welcomed our first born son, Jude, into the world, we craved something different.
We longed for a community to raise our family. We sold our home in Tempe and traveled that summer across the country searching. While visiting some friends in Asheville, North Carolina we felt on a deep, visceral level that we had found the place we were to put down roots. Asheville is an incredible place with some of the oldest mountains in the world, one of the oldest rivers in the world and some incredible history, as well. We were attracted to the community feel, like-minded people and the beauty of the area. We bought a home, and I started working at the North Carolina School of Natural Healing. When I became pregnant with our second son, Haizen, instead of doing a traditional birthing class, I decided to take a nine month Meditation and Energy Healing program. It was a wonderful container to integrate my first birth experience and prepare for my next.
What did you learn from consciously choosing to take a more holistic, spirit-centered approach to birthing?
When the patterns from my first birth experience began to show up, I deeply explored the patterns through the meditation and energy healing program. At one point, I had a rib go out. While trying to sit still during a meditation, yet struggling due to the pain, I felt the essence of Mother Mary whisper, “Sometimes the strongest thing to do is to be weak.” The words resonated loudly; as I allowed them to wash over me, I instantly knew that by asking for what I needed, it was not weakness - - my surrender became my strength.
While in western North Carolina, I completed my M.S. in Counseling and have been practicing as a clinical mental health therapist ever since. At the beginning of my career I worked with adults, however, later on I found myself serving children and adolescents. Most recently, I served as the Clinical Director of a residential program for girls – which was some of the most rewarding and difficult work I have ever done. It so deeply and completely taught me about the healing process.
Tell is more about what you have learned about the healing process: Are there any particularly stories around the work you did with the girls that you’d like to share?
I have worked in several different settings as a therapist: private practice, school-based, wilderness and residential. While working in residential, I worked with girls 11-15 years of age. I always say: “Parents don’t just place their child in a residential program if things are just a ‘little’ tough.” The girls I worked with had intense depression, anxiety, trauma, learning difficulties and relational issues. Many of the girls I worked with were adopted and regularly harmed themselves. I became known as the “trauma and attachment” specialist.
The girls and families I worked with made progress, and people started to notice. In searching to understand the common thread, I discovered that it always started with a broken relationship within the family unit. My job was to help be the bridge and to bring awareness to the relationship that needed to be healed. One young lady had a teeny tiny voice and was extremely avoidant. Before she left the program she came into a beautiful relationship with her voice; she wrote, composed and sang one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. Another young lady couldn’t handle calling her parents ‘her parents’; she was able to discover a way to be in relationship with her family, and the miracle is that she’s reuniting with them again this week!
One really important thing I did was consistently provide the girls with “introception” – in other words, I provided a “safe environment” for building connection and trust. When someone is trying to heal, they are often scared. We as healers, coaches, and care-givers are asking them to lean into and explore parts of themselves that they have been avoiding. I’ve yet to meet a person who didn’t want to be in relationship with another human, spiritual being. When we meet people in the middle of their healing process, they need to be in “safe relationships” with others who allow them to feel validated, cared for, and inspired. When someone feels “safe”, they begin to take risks that break through the shame that often holds the dysfunctional pattern in place. When we as healers can value and see the pattern as serving a purpose, then we can help and support our clients’ in their healing.
When someone is trying to heal, they are often scared. We as healers are asking them to lean into and explore parts of themselves that they have been avoiding.
Working with these young wounded “spiritual beings” taught me a lot about the shame people carry. Most importantly, it taught me how to help circumvent ¬– find a way around – their core wounds and how to support people in finding meaning in all that they experience on their own “Hero’s journeys,” while leading them back into relationship with themselves and others once again. While serving these young women, I truly discovered my core passion: To help people discover how amazing and capable they truly are.
Is there more you want to share about your core passion? What are some of the key elements in helping to inspire others?
“It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”
This poem by Marianne Williamson was a major source of inspiration for me, and I used it often in my therapeutic work. This, along with Brene Brown’s work, really influenced how I saw therapy and eventually, my purpose. I found that when I could connect with someone at their core or their essence, that is when I could draw out the part of them who was willing to take steps toward healing. When I could reach someone at their core, something shifted within them. Something resonated, much like what I felt when I was at SWIM taking massage and exploring new ways of looking at life. I got hooked, and I couldn’t look at life the same ever again. Many times, when that shift occurred, I became distinctly aware that I wasn’t alone and that Spirit was guiding me; I learned to surrender into that “Divine guidance.”
My belief is we come into this world perfect, not in a perfectionist kind of way, rather with an inner beauty that can only radiate from “the Divine” that lives within us. When we are brand-new as babies, we are all bright and shiny . . . energetically. As we grow and travel, and our individual destined journeys and life lessons come our way, we often learn to create “shields of defenses” that feel heavy and dark. Our emotional injuries and hurt often leads to “shame responses” that influence us, causing us to act or react in certain ways. Yet, as we learn to navigate through these emotional layers, we discover ways to come back into relationship with ourselves, so that we might create whole and healthy relationships with others. When we come home to ourselves, we discover the true “Hero” within.
When you treat people as capable, they show up.
As I started focusing on people’s “true selves,” I discovered that people made huge shifts in their lives. When you reflect on all that is possible and all that others are capable of, amazing things happen. When amazing things happen, people feel hopeful. When you treat people as capable, they show up. This belief and passion has been the driving force in my own life as I support others in experiencing this for themselves. This is also where I learned how to inspire others to be great at what they do. I discovered that when people experience a sense of safety and feel supported, they explore themselves and their capabilities more deeply and in turn contribute significantly by sharing their gifts.
As I started focusing on people’s “true selves” and I discovered that
people made huge shifts in their lives.
How do you see your new role being a ‘Labor of Love’?
I have known for a long time that my work needs to be meaningful. It’s important to me to be able do my work from my “heart-space.” My “heart” is centered in helping others in deep and meaningful ways. What I love about my new position as Dean of Students is that I can do just that, as I feel a sense of freedom to do what I love and my hope is that I will inspire others to do the same.
On top of it all, I love that I am being supported. I LOVE that I have permission to overtly use my connection with Spirit to do the work I feel called to do and to really be who I am. For example, I am encouraged to have a personal alter in my office. How amazing is that?
Although I found my clinical work fulfilling, I felt a strong intuitive pull to return to the healing arts world, and to where I have always called home: Arizona. In the Hero’s Journey, ‘the Return‘ is where one returns home with a new awareness, skills, wisdom (things that can only be achieved by overcoming life’s challenges) and assimilates the lesson, so as to start yet another Hero’s Journey. Twenty-three years later, I am returning home to SWIHA as well. When I think back to the girl who took KC’s first massage class, I was young in many ways. As I have grown, so has SWIHA, and I very enthusiastically and humbly look forward to stepping into my role as guardian, coach, mentor and leader.
What are some of the new things that you want to implement in your new role as Dean of Students?
First, I will listen . . . and learn. I want to know, and feel, what IS working. I already feel that the “SWIHA spirit” is alive and well. From there, I want to focus on creating an even stronger conscious community where everyone feels “safe” enough to have their own “Hero’s Journey.” I am committed to supporting students as they navigate their educational and personal healing processes because, as we know at SWIHA, healing is a connected process: As one of us heals, others around us have the opportunity to change and heal as well.
Any parting words of inspiration you wish to share?
Every (healing) journey begins with the decision to take the first step: Let the journey begin!