Biography Article

When Victoria Ackerman was a little girl, she saw a lot of things that other people didn’t see.  Clouds, in particular—puffs of wild, vibrant colors encircling the heads and shoulders of everyone around her. She saw them so often, in fact, she thought that was just how people looked. Her mother, raising Victoria on her own, was nonetheless deeply concerned. She relinquished $26 she didn’t have ($200 in 2016 dollars) to take the six-year-old to a vision specialist.

“Your eyesight is perfect,” he said. “Now, tell me more about these visions. Can you make them go away?”

Ackerman tried. She squinted at him. She focused, hard. She discovered that if she really concentrated, she could.

“I think so,” she said.

“Then do that,” said the doctor.

Ackerman turned away from her gift for decades. She pretended she didn’t sense things she shouldn’t. “I was a good girl,” she says. “For the most part I shut it off.” Today, however, she readily acknowledges that what she saw as a child were auras—hues that evoke a person’s specific moods and energies. It took her a long time to feel comfortable with knowing that—and it took a stultifying business career, a health crisis, and a near-death experience to help her see again. But now she no longer hides her talents.

Warm and engaging in person, Ackerman has a welcoming vibe that serves her well as the founder of The Spirit University, a Sarasota, FL-based educational center devoted to spiritual exploration. Launched in 2011, it’s grown from a handful of classes and a core group of 200 students to 30 monthly sessions, huge events and 7,000 visitors annually. The need for understanding that Ackerman felt as a child served as the initial spark for the idea: “I wanted to create a sanctuary for people like me,” she says. “I wanted to connect them with their highest of themselves or the other side, and take away their fear.”

Boasting 30 teachers, a coterie of international speakers and more than 100 available classes (everything from psychic development, mediumship and Reiki to Qi Gong, laughter yoga and automatic writing), the university’s lively lessons have become a big draw. Ackerman herself is in demand as an evidential medium (one who offers names, dates and other proof when communicating with the dead). When she’s not leading readings or lectures, she helps others discover their own gifts in that realm.

Her love for what she does is grounded in family. Her maternal grandmother vividly described encountering the ghost of her late uncle as a young child; fascinated by the beliefs of the Victorian Spiritualist community, she met with its controversial figurehead, Edgar Cayce, in the last year of his life. Her maternal grandfather held a different view: “He also saw spirits, and it scared him,” Ackerman says. “He wouldn’t talk about it. He would run out of a room when a spirit was there. That was one of the reasons I did this—to help people like him.”

Her early years gave no indication of the direction things would take. Ambitious and scientifically minded as a teen, Ackerman majored in engineering at college before embarking on several different, successful careers, running a satellite-TV company and a shipping business before becoming a real-estate broker for high-end properties in town. But none of it was truly satisfying, she says.

“I remember driving to my real-estate office in my Cadillac on St. Armand’s Circle, in my beautiful clothes and beautiful jewelry,” she says. “We were doing $10 to 15 million in sales, and as I’m driving along, all I’m thinking is: ‘I’ve got all this money and success and I’m not happy. I’ve got to do something about this.”

The universe had other plans. While running her businesses, Ackerman had struggled for years with fibromyalgia, a condition that caused to her feel like she “had a headache all over her body. Everything hurt, all the time.” When her doctor prescribed a well-known pain medication that didn’t work, she tried to wean herself from it too fast, and found herself spiraling into an excruciating withdrawal from the effects of the drug. (Similar cases were all over the news in 2005, with at least one death reported.) She grew sick, then debilitated, then despondent.

“I took the medication for 28 days and then boom! Everything ended,” she says. “I couldn’t even e-mail my employees. I was bedridden for more than a year, and in and out of the hospital. It felt like something was constantly zapping my brain.  I had a bag with Vioxx, Oxycodone, grapeseed oil, and everything in between that I’d been prescribed to help me, which I kept at my side—and it didn’t work. All three of my doctors said, ‘Put your affairs in order—there’s nothing we can do.’”

They gave her dates for how long she had left. “I tried to maintain a good attitude,” Ackerman says. “But by September of the next year, I looked bad. My husband and daughter would stand over me and make a face and look away. I had doctors’ appointments, therapy or tests three times a week. Getting off of that drug was like beating heroin. I just kept thinking: ‘Just get through the next 60 seconds. Just get through the next day.’ And I did that for nine months.”

One night, in the throes of the worst pain, she fell asleep—and had the clear sensation of floating away from her body, out the double glass doors of her house. In what she would later realize was a near-death experience, she felt herself moving forward with certainty away from her known world. “I immediately knew where to go,” she says. “I was on a mission. And, honestly, instead of thinking of my husband of 30 years, and my daughter, my only thought was ‘It’s over. I’m out of the pain.’”

She encountered a figure who felt “familiar, similar to me,” she says. “I felt tremendous love. He put his hand up and said ‘Stop!’ And when he did that, all these memories came back. I suddenly knew he was my guide. I knew where I was. I knew a lot more about the other side than I had known before.  And then I reflected on my life and knew I was not done. As soon as I realized that, Boom! I was back again.”

It still took Ackerman a long time to nurse herself back to health. “I could barely walk two steps,” she admits. By sheer force of will, she brought herself into a good place. “I would hobble, but I would say to myself, ‘I am in perfect health.’ And after two more tortured steps, I would say, ‘I feel wonderful.’ I did that for two whole months before it started to make a difference… but it made a difference.”

Feeling transformed by her experience, she began seeking out information about healing and the other side, and connecting with those who could relate to what she was feeling. She started reading about spiritual energy. She joined the Sarasota Center of Light, and studied and taught there for five years—delving into psychic development and spiritual communication, learning from visiting experts, taking more than 40 classes, and filling her notebook with page after page of notes.

“What I learned,” she reflects, “is that happiness is a choice we make. I don’t have to be here right now—it was my choice to come back and I am trying to make it worthwhile. There are planes of existence on the other side… and I want to be on the highest plane. It’s less pleasant on the lower ones,” she adds, laughing. “Making myself better and helping others—generating a feeling of love and peace—that’s what’s worth it in life. I just want to allow it to happen and share it with others.”

Ackerman’s interest in what she was learning grew so strong, she began branching out and teaching her own classes outside of the center. Taking a leap of faith, she opened The Spirit University five years ago. “I want those who come here to have access to knowledge. I want them to connect and network with others, and share with those that have the same interests. I want them to embrace good health and wellness and also be able to advance their souls—and mine, too!”

She watches students experience a sense of wonder as they discover their own mediumistic or psychic abilities. Effort matters as much as innate skill, she says. “Everyone can connect in the way that I do,” she vows. “I just worked at it. People who try to do their first readings might find it takes a while, but then six of their eight insights are correct. And then they do it the next night, and the next night, and then 80 out of the 100 things they read are correct for the person in front of them.”

“Part of what I do here is help people find their own proof,” she adds. “I can tell them a story about what I am seeing, but there’s nothing like hearing real proof. You have to actually validate what you’re doing, to give evidence to others—otherwise you’re just sharing your opinion and nobody knows if it’s real or not.”

 With almost no external advertising, The Spirit University has amassed a dedicated following, already growing well beyond what Ackerman ever imagined. “Where will this all go?” she asks. “I didn’t even see this coming. The people who come here range in age from four to 94. It just keeps building. I never dreamed so many people would see the benefit in their lives from something that I started.”

Over the last few years, ‘TSU’ has launched large-scale events in the Sarasota area, among them the Mystical Bazaar at the Municipal Auditorium (held in September); the A-Ha! Holistic Health Expo held at the center in Fabruary; and the Fairy Faire (held at the center in June). Big names are appearing on its roster of speakers, too, from TV vet Lisa Williams (star of Lifetime TV’s Life Among the Dead, coming in October) to neurosurgeon Eben Alexander (who has written about near-death experiences in his book, Proof of Heaven) and police psychic Noreen Reiner.

As the center’s reach has expanded, it’s introduced online classes, a lending library and ‘Spirit on the Go’ sessions taught at mobile home parks, libraries, retirement communities and more. “This isn’t something we are doing to turn a profit,” Ackerman points out. “We are really investing our time and attention in this endeavor. We’re all learning together—the teachers as much as the students.”

That community is everything, she adds. “People become great friends here,” she says. “They support each other. They feel like they have people they can talk to, and not be looked at like they are crazy. That’s so important. People fly in from abroad. Many people have lost those they love, and it’s like a giant support group. So many of them tell me that they don’t know what they would do without this place.”

For her part, Ackerman says, the community has changed her life. “When you’re with people here, you feel this energy or vibration that opens up your heart. I would be dead now without this. It’s helped me understand the difference between just living with my nose to the grindstone and actually being happy. And what I know now is: I am here to do good work. That’s why I’m here. Some of these things people learn will be with them the rest of their lives. I think that’s worth everything I do.”