I'VE BROUGHT my lunch with me, with the expectation that, since I'm visiting a college campus, there will be a scenic place to eat it.
It's a terrible supposition, in retrospect. Portland's National College of Natural Medicine is small—with less than 550 students enrolled last year—and sort of shoehorned into an oblong diamond of land between the western terminus of the Ross Island Bridge and SW Naito and Highway 26.
But the first thing my eyes set on as I reach campus is a charming "healing garden." It would be more restorative if not for the car traffic whooshing off the bridge nearby, but the patch is nonetheless a bit of floral refuge in a road-choked part of Southwest Portland. I munch my stir-fry and look up at Oregon Health and Science University, which in this context seems like an enemy—the imperious overlord to the NCNM's ragtag rebel band.
But maybe that's an unfair characterization. In the world of naturopathy, Oregon is something of a guide star and the NCNM is a respected institution. Founded in 1956, it is North America's oldest accredited college of naturopathic medicine—which places a premium on natural solutions to the body's many ailments, and champions our inherent healing capacity. But while the doctors emerging from NCNM likely have a far-deeper respect for herbs than their counterparts up the hill, they're also given a standard medical curriculum and trained as primary care practitioners.
I cross the street to the school's main academic building—a 101-year-old brick structure that was originally a Portland elementary school—where hints of the student body's tendencies toward the natural abound. The ground floor vending machine has as many types of teabags as potato chips (also, quinoa bars), and placards remind me the building is to remain "fragrance free." A sign in the student bookstore warns customers that under no circumstances will clerks honor returns or exchanges of kombucha, and includes a short discourse on the beverage's mercurial nature.
"It used to be a problem," the cashier tells me, before launching into a discourse of her own. (CliffsNotes: Kombucha is a fermented beverage, and different batches will have different flavors and levels of effervescence. You're rolling the dice with each purchase.) I take my chances on a bottle of GT's Gingerade and it is delicious. Yahtzee!
But what of the student experience at NCNM? I find Meghan Bennett and Angelica Gonzalez studying in a corridor on the second floor. They're a year out from becoming naturopathic physicians and, between shifts at the school's medical clinic and coursework, it's clear they've got a lot on their plates.
"It's like a typical med-school program," Bennett tells me. But then she launches into why she finds naturopathy more compelling than conventional medicine. "You're not just isolating a headache," she says, by way of example. "You're trying to figure out why you have the headache in the first place. We have a better role in prevention."
In some ways, it is a difficult career path. When the women receive their degrees next June, they'll be able to work as doctors in just 17 states and the District of Columbia. The remainder of the country has yet to establish guidelines regulating the profession.
Gonzalez tells me Oregon is a "Mecca state" for the profession, allowing naturopathic physicians to take on a wide array of procedures.
Gonzalez and Bennett are less helpful when I ask about the best restaurants and bars around campus (though their answers helpfully coincide with my notions of naturopathy). They mostly bring their own food in, they say. There's a spot across SW Naito, the Lair Hill Bistro, but they're not sure whether it has alcohol or not.
It does, I later confirm.