As an undergraduate at Florida International University, Marissa Brinkman had had profound psychedelic experiences, but she didn’t know it was possible to have a career in them. Everything changed when she enrolled in a course—one of a few of its kind for undergrads at colleges in the US—about the science of psychedelics, how they affect the brain, and how they’ve influenced American culture, with guest speakers ranging from chemists to lawyers. “It really showed me that this is a legitimate profession,” she says. “I know this is something I want to do.”
Now a recent graduate with a double major in public administration and sustainability, Brinkman hopes to grow mushrooms someplace where it’s legal and do psychedelic advocacy work. She’s also Director of Community Engagement for the Intercollegiate Psychedelics Network (IPN), a group of students from different schools who support other students interested in psychedelics through online talks, a virtual conference, workshops on grad school opportunities, and a job board.
The IPN is filling a gap that currently exists in psychedelic education. With dozens of universities offering courses and even degrees in cannabis, psychedelics have not gained the same widespread acceptance—yet. “We validate that you can have a career here; there is support available; you can do something in this space,” says the organization’s Director of Internal Operations Victor Pablo Acero.
A few pioneering psychedelics programs have emerged over the past few years, starting with Johns Hopkins’s Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research in 2019. NYU, the University of Michigan, and Ohio State University followed suit with their own psychedelic research centers, and Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania are developing a program to educate nurses and social workers on psychedelics. The University of Madison, Wisconsin began offering a Master of Science in Pharmaceutical Sciences: Psychoactive Pharmaceutical Investigation in 2021, and mental health workers can earn certificates in psychedelic therapy from the University of California, Berkeley and the California Institute of Integral Studies.
Still, these efforts are mostly for graduate students, researchers, and professionals, leaving few opportunities for undergraduates. Uma Chatterjee, the IPN’s Director of Media and a neuroscience graduate student at the University of Texas, Dallas, says her school does not offer much in the area of psychedelic education. “I have to present on it every chance I get to present a paper—I bring it to try to balance it out, but there’s almost an outright rejection of the field,” she says.
College students’ resources for learning about psychedelics are largely limited to student efforts like the IPN and Just Say Know, a peer-to-peer drug education program created by Students for Sensible Drug Policy. Even student groups’ ability to discuss psychedelics is confined by legal threats. “It would be really good to see college campuses changing their policies regarding drug use. If the student is having a bad trip, not having the first reaction be to call the cops and have them be suspended or expelled, maybe even going so far as to include some sort of a program where students can talk about these things in a safe way,” says Brinkman.
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Another obstacle may be schools’ and possibly parents’ fear that if college students learn about psychedelics, they will use them. But Brinkman says she’s seen students in her class learn about psychedelics but still not want to try them. “Many students thought it was really neat and really cool, but just not for them,” she says, adding that the information imparted may actually help people be more responsible with their drug use and avoid disingenuous or abusive psychedelic practitioners.
She has personally used the information from her psychedelics class to help friends who experienced bad trips. “This class and others like it are probably going to prevent more bad trips than they realize,” she says. “I think education can save lives, or even just improve the quality of life.”
One opportunity Acero sees for campuses wanting to nurture students’ interest in psychedelics is to train students who volunteer as EMTs to treat peers who are on psychedelics. “There are a lot of groups where undergraduates who want to go to med school can practice as EMTs,” he explains. “These EMTs have no idea how to handle people under the influence of a psychedelic drug versus someone who is aggressively, violently drunk.” He’d also like to see schools create seminar series’ or survey classes on psychedelics for undergraduates.
“I do think undergraduates are the best group to focus on because psychedelics have a notable issue of diversity, and the further you go up the ladder, that gets more exacerbated,” he explains. ”You’re not exposing as many underrepresented students to psychedelics.”
The first step toward making psychedelic education available to students may be to combat the larger cultural stigma around psychedelics, which currently leaves many students afraid to admit they are interested in studying them out of fear that people will then assume they’ve used them. “When I started voicing my interest, I started laughing because I sounded sketchy,” says Brinkman. “The IPN has given me the footing and proper wording to talk about what I want to do and sound professional.”
For now, Chatterjee recommends that students interested in psychedelics who lack institutional support look into labs where they can research adjacent topics, like psychology and neuroscience, so that they can gain relevant experience. Brinkman also suggests reaching out to people at companies and organizations you may want to work for down the road. “Many people in the psychedelic space are so welcoming and kind,” she says. “You do need to be patient, but just getting your name out there in the field is a huge start.”