For students, a college’s cultural diversity is their first venture into a world different from their sheltered backgrounds, exposing them to peers with differing viewpoints while giving them a more global perspective when making life-altering career decisions.
Life Chiropractic College West promotes the idea that diversity increases a person’s capacity to explore philosophies and resolutions from different perspectives. The leadership at this San Francisco Bay Area campus encourages a diversity that fosters social development, critical thinking, and personal growth.
In fact, Life West’s pluralism is what first attracted chiropractic student Kristan Cassady to the halls of this Hayward, Calif. campus. And today, Kristan is certainly sparking an inclusion conversation at the college.
The Violinist Beginnings
Kristan’s somewhat divergent path to a chiropractic degree began with natural healing after she had become desperate for relief. Raised in Orlando, Florida, Kristan picked up the violin and found her passion. The young virtuoso eagerly sought out any chance to cultivate her abilities, playing with orchestras in Europe and at music festivals around the country as often as possible. Whether music chose Kristan or Kristan chose music, she decided her violin was creating her career path.
While freelancing as a violinist, Kristan was working as the Fine and Performing Arts director at a school located on a cow farm—literally—in New Jersey. Nicole Opper, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, was living on a goat farm—literally—in Mexico, 2,500 miles away. That’s when fate stepped in. The film crew of the feature documentary “Off and Running,” including its director and producer, Nicole, were invited to the school where Kristan was employed. Two weeks later, Nicole and Kristan were plotting future adventures together, planning a wedding, and discussing how they would create a family.
In 2012, with no ties to hold them back, Nicole and Kristan packed up their lovable pooch Rocky and moved to San Francisco. Following the 2013 overturn of Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California, this devoted duo married and moved to Oakland, California.
What Triggered the Change?
Kristan had been practicing 12 to 18 hours each day in preparation for auditions for several major orchestra openings in the Bay Area. One morning she woke up and couldn’t open her hand.
“I thought it may be a bite or something small, so I put on some ointment and decided not to practice that day,” she said. Being a professional musician is much like being a professional athlete; if you don’t practice continually, you lose your edge. “As the days passed, the pain spread up my arm, and practices weren’t viable. It was scary–I was terrified about progressive atrophy.” Kristan went to several doctors, but they were unable to diagnose what was happening.
Really… A Chiropractor?
At this point, a friend urged Kristan to see a chiropractor. Although somewhat pessimistic that a chiropractor could help her hand, she was willing to try anything.
“After my first visit, I retained 80% mobility in my hand!” she said. “I continued with treatments, starting at two per week, then down to one visit per week. By this time, of course, I had missed the auditions, but I was so amazed at how much this chiropractor had changed my life, I felt that this was something I could do—I could go back to school, and possibly make the same kind of difference in someone else’s life.”
But a chiropractic career would entail giving up her lifelong dream of being a musician. “After deliberating for about a year, I got up enough courage to abandon my music, thus beginning my search for a chiropractic school that would be the best match for me.”
After looking at several schools, Kristan chose Life Chiropractic College West. “Not only did I want a school located nearby, I also wanted a school that fostered liberal attitudes,” Kristan said with candor. “I looked at several schools, but Life West was not only located in an area known for its social activism, cultural diversity, and flourishing artistic community that I found extremely grounding, it was a great school with a curriculum that matched my educational goals.”
Family Time and Complications
Kristan started classes at the campus in January 2016, which meant graduating in 2019, and meanwhile her wife’s blossoming filmmaking and directing career was taking off. In addition to teaching filmmaking at universities such as Stanford University and San Francisco State University, Nicole was producing films for The Discovery Channel and Here TV. Her “Off and Running” documentary chronicling the life of Avery—an African-American adoptive daughter of white Jewish lesbians as she struggles to embrace the culture of both her birth and adoptive families—was an Audience Favorite at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film was also a winner of 10 international awards including Best Documentary at Outfest and Best Documentary Screenplay at SilverDocs. Nicole was also selected for Filmmaker Magazine’s annual “25 New Faces of Independent Film.”
With their futures looking bright, the couple decided it was time to make this family of two a threesome. “Nicole and I decided we wanted to become parents. Knowing that I was about to go back to school, we wanted to get all the paperwork and home studies out of the way before my school schedule took over,” Kristan said.
Adopting through the U.S. foster care system entails a lot of paperwork and numerous home studies, so the two jumped right in to ensure that all was in motion before Kristan’s classes began. With more than 437,000 kids in foster care nationwide and more than 118,000 in need of adoptive homes, the couple quickly realized the process was going to be much more complicated than anticipated. There were no easy answers or a guide to help them along the path, so with Nicole’s background as a filmmaker and director, the couple decided to film their experience, and “The F Word” was born.
If you stumbled upon the PBS digital web series, “The F Word: A Foster to Adopt Story” last Fall, consider yourself lucky. “The F Word” is a six-episode (about 10 minutes each) documentary that follows Kristan and her wife’s quest to adopt a child through the foster care system. For those who missed the original airing, all Season 1 episodes are available to watch on the website. For those who have already seen parts of this heartwarming story unfold, beware: spoilers ahead.
Kristan and Nicole completed their foster parent training in April 2015, finished their home study, and were finally approved (on Kristan’s first day of school) to begin the matching process.
Sometimes comedic, sometimes heart-wrenching, each segment of Season 1 of the “The F Word” provides an inside look at the trials, tribulations, and triumphs this couple endured along the layered trek through the foster process to be finally matched with an infant son.
The final episode of Season 1 ends in a cliffhanger as the couple drives away from the hospital, with Kristan calling her mom to let her know that she is a grandmother. Footage of the child was illegal at this point in the foster process, so viewers were left clamoring for images of the baby, wondering whether the couple would eventually be able to adopt. With just a little digging online, though (here comes the spoiler), viewers find out the couple was able to finalize the adoption of their son “J.”
Season 2 of “The F Word,” airing this fall, will take a slight turn (more spoilers ahead). Season 1 focused on Kristan and Nicole’s journey through the process as they spoke with other foster-adoptive parents and children. The duo plans to go deeper and look further into the foster care system in Season 2. They will be talking with system-involved birth parents, social workers, and most importantly, former foster youth themselves.
Family and School Come Together
Did motherhood have an impact on their lives? “It totally changed it … FOR THE BETTER!” Kristan exclaims. At first during the fostering stage, foster parents are required to attend many appointments and social worker visits, so it was quite a struggle juggling a new baby, school, and jobs.
“I’ve been extremely fortunate, though,” she said. “Life West embraces families and kids of all kinds and has worked with us throughout the process to accommodate our hectic schedules.”
Today, Kristan schedules a light class load and even takes “J” to school with her once a week. “He is a part of my identity at school and is considered a part of the Life West family, high-fiving classmates and instructors as we walk down the halls. I have to give a shout-out to my classmates as well, who have been right there for me when I couldn’t be in class—without them, I wouldn’t be on track to graduate next year.”
Kristan and Nicole plan to stay in the Oakland area, where Kristan hopes to open a family wellness chiropractic practice that specializes in pediatric and pregnancy services. Although she identifies as queer, she recognizes the need for intersectionality. Her future practice will be a community-safe place open to not only the LGBTQ family, but to people of all colors, cultures, members of the disabled community, and family-types. Simply put, she will have an open-door practice that caters to all. As her business grows, she would like to align her practice to absorb services such as acupuncture, massage, and acupressure as well.
Both Kristan and Nicole are profoundly involved in philanthropy work. Kristan sits on the board of “Love Just,” a non-profit chiropractic organization that ensures all women receive chiropractic services. Kristan has also been an instrumental player within Life West’s Equality Council. The Equality Council provides a safe space and community for its LGBTQ+ students, allowing those of diverse backgrounds and experiences to gather and share while imparting to current undergraduates the importance of inclusivity in treating all patients. Since its founding by fellow student Erica Simpson in 2017, Kristan has served as the Vice President of the Equality Council’s executive board, acted as the interim President during spring 2018, and has organized all of the club’s Oakland Pride events, garnering large student participation and exposure for the campus.
Nicole has become a court-appointed special advocate (CASA) for transitional age foster youth in the Bay Area. These children are a vulnerable group that often need a consistent adult showing up for them as they age out of the system. And because children in foster care often live in stressful situations, carrying physical and emotional trauma as a byproduct of their circumstances, Kristan’s philanthropic dream is to provide chiropractic care to help alleviate these and other health issues that commonly plague the foster system youth.
Kristan is also working with a public health teacher to provide these types of assistance programs at Life West. Life West’s curriculum is intense and demanding for both the students and instructors alike, yet professors and staff encourage Kristan’s philanthropic efforts. In fact, the culture at Life West is establishing a pattern for charitable services. For example, Life West’s outpatient clinic offers discount services to veterans and active military personnel, served by senior students during an 18-month internship in the clinic. Life West also plans to provide chiropractic services for members of the Veteran’s Memorial Hall onsite at their historic building in Hayward.
The Journey Continues
As gay parents in a transracial family, Kristan and Nicole recognize that “J” will one day have questions, and they want him to be proud of who he is and where he comes from. They know that their journey through the foster system didn’t end with their child’s adoption. They believe that fostering a culture of diversity at home, work, and school is paramount to their hopes of nurturing a healthier society.
This example of inclusion is welcome at Life West. It’s a place of open doors and potential, where good health and equality are part of the strategic initiatives.