According to its website, ChoiceCenter Leadership University has offered "... personal development and leadership courses using experiential learning to elevate Emotional Intelligence (E.Q.)." One investigator that attended the university says it is a cult in the guise of a university – and explains, in detail, what "experiential learning" was in her course.
The investigator, Jill,* recently attended the Las Vegas-based school. A friend paid her $2,700 entry fee the ChoiceCenter course,"** a 100-day training. From the moment she walked into the windowless training room with 100 participants, the Star Wars theme song blasting, to the graduation, Jill describes her experience as "frightening, exhausting, and cult-like."
Video cameras in the room recorded every move. A panel of "coaches" sat in the back of the room to evaluate students. Jill's formal education includes psychology, criminology, and work as an investigator, so she took careful notice of the program's curriculum. Rules included "no drug use, no smoking, no drinking, no sex, no gambling, and no entering into a new relationship until 30 days after the training." Men had to shave all facial hair.
Next, participants "had to walk up to all strangers and say 1. I trust you, 2. I don't trust you, or 3. I don't know yet," Jill explains.
Participants had to announce secrets; some recounted horrific child abuse and sexual assault. Others had severe family issues. There were no professional therapists, counselors, or doctors to assist these trauma survivors during the course.
Jill recalls staff telling the participants, "We are your family and friends for life, and we love you ... we'll always love you." If students wanted to quit, "coaches and participants would encircle the quitter (as a group) and beg them to stay."
There seems to be much screaming involved in "experiential learning." Exercises included "stand(ing) and screaming at the top of your lungs… (And) another exercise where two students nose to nose taking turns screaming,' What do you want!'" Repeatedly at one another. In one session, "'Feedback arch,' one person stands in front of a group, and the person gets screamed at (about) 'what is wrong' with them … Then you move from one group to the next" for continued verbal abuse. Coaches assist and encourage the screaming.
Jill describes the participants, including herself, "sleep-deprived, starving, dehydrated, and covered in sweat." She explains, "Temperatures in the room were changed drastically." Lights went from dim to bright, and music blasted at intervals, all of it purposely. During the breaks, students were to keep "a vow of silence." Jill says the program involved sleep and food deprivation. Courses would end at 1:00 am, then copious amounts of homework had to be completed, the usual bathing and prepping for the next day, and mandatory attendance resumed at about 10:00 am for the emotionally and physically drained participants. Participants were allowed to purchase and bring their drinks and light snacks, but only water was allowed in the training room. Being "allowed" to go to dinner but only in their "power groups" included a ChoiceCenter coach. "Constructive criticism" was always part of dinner, each person required to tell the other, "'how you show up to me is….' Then you had to say something negative," Jill explains.
Jill did experience some positive experiences like the "hug line" where all of the classes met to give one another a hug and positive reinforcement. "It felt good after being torn down repeatedly.”
Part Two of the course is "Breakthrough," and "Breakthrough differed from discovery ... the psychological, physical, mental, and emotional abuse is much, much greater." Jill recalls shortened breaks; food, water, and sleep deprivation intensified. "Only this time, they are going to verbally abuse (participants)." An exercise called "Lifeboat" had participants lying on the floor in a darkened room. Jill describes this exercise as
(The trainer tells you to) visualize being in a boat, it's sinking, we're all going to die, and we are never going to see or talk to our friends and family again. What haven't we said? What haven't we done? But … there's one lifeboat, and six people get to live. We had to go to the microphone and say why we should live, and plead and beg for our lives. (The trainer) gave 15 minutes … for all of us to strategize how we pick the six people who survive. We had to stand in a huge circle (and) give six popsicles sticks to give the six (of 100) people we deem as worthy of living. We have three options as we go up to every single person: 1. Say the person's name, and they live 2. Say the person's name, and they don't live, or 3. Say, verbatim, "I don't know your name, I don't care about you, and you don't live."
No one was allowed to touch. Coaches followed each student, "screaming at the person… like—"They don't even know your name! You're invisible! How do you show up in your life? Dead to the world?" To the person handing out the sticks: "You don't even bother to know their name? What is wrong with you? How many people in your life do you neglect! Imagine that's your (family member). You're letting your family drown!"
One of the "Stretch" exercises cast each female participant as a famous singer. They had two hours to drive around in Las Vegas in groups of six searching and purchasing clothing ("sexy" the coach suggested), learn dance moves, and eat dinner. Attractive males were divided into two groups ("L.M.F.A.O." and "Magic Mikes") and were told, "You boys are going to strip!" Removing all clothing except underwear. "Big, tough" males had to wear tutus and dance. They all performed for one another.
"Leadership" class consisted of participants telephoning friends and family to enroll five people for ChoiceCenter courses. According to ChoiceCenter's website, "ChoiceCenter has existed without running advertisements or commercials or providing incentives to graduates. Our students experience such powerful results in their lives that they want to pay the experience forward and share it with those they love." According to Jill, participants were given a “hard sell” script to use. To graduate the course, it was mandatory the participant enroll one person.
Participants also had to "give back" by volunteering to clean the ChoiceCenter offices and bathrooms. In the portion "Legacy," classes are given one week to raise $130,000 to a charity selected by ChoiceCenter, given in the name of ChoiceCenter. Bottom line: ChoiceCenter has free sales calls, free office janitorial services, and a tax break - all managed by free labor.
Jill explains one reason why she and her friends stayed: Coaches continually promised the last weekend to be "a magical, wonderful time." On the last weekend, participants "discovered the truth." First, participants were given a list of mandatory items for a retreat; some total costs ran as high as $500. "Some of the stuff on the list was on there to throw you off; you didn't need it." Next, ChoiceCenter seized all makeup (including skincare), and electronics. Finally, drivers in black suits driving black S.U.V.s drove participants to an unknown destination with "vow of silence" in place. They arrived at a group of small mountain cabins with the heat purposely shut off; it was snowing heavily, and many students were not wearing appropriate cold-weather clothing, "so we were freezing." Bathing was not allowed. They were dropped off and left without phones, maps, or any way to return to civilization.
While some students enjoyed their experience at ChoiceCenter Leadership University, Jill says she did not. Out of 100 participants, only 41 graduated, including Jill.
Jill feels she made real friendships, and it was "adventurous" – akin to "going to war." She believes the reason people stayed in the program and followed the rules "was the lure of the last weekend retreat or the promise of networking and having a family with unconditional love" from ChoiceCenter's "family." Being told, "If you quit (the class), you'll lose friends and family" kept people, including Jill, from leaving. "I stayed because I didn't want to lose my friends."
The promise of becoming a coach and "changing people's lives for the better" was also a lure (Jill later discovered coaches work for free, another “giving back” tactic). To become a coach only requires graduation from the training.
Coaches told participants, "if '(we) discussed the training to anyone outside (we) had no integrity.' They made us feel like scumbags if we talked." However, Jill is talking. "I think it's about ChoiceCenter making money." She sighs deeply. "I feel like I did my time and escaped the place."
*For privacy purposes, pseudonyms are used
** Name of course and dates not used here for privacy purposes
ChoiceCenter Leadership University website: www.choicecenter.com