Wayfinding Academy in North Portland has a two-year curriculum focused on building students' life skills, though many of its first graduates are still searching for answers.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Michelle Jones is the founder of Wayfinding Academy, an alternative college located in North Portland.Austin Louis, who soon will graduate in Portland, started out at a four-year university in Massachusetts. But he didn't like it.

"I just really was not learning anything, and I saw the path I was going down and realized I didn't want to do that," Louis says. But at Wayfinding Academy, a small alternative higher education program that opened in St. Johns almost two years ago, "I think above all else I've learned to trust my process and trust what I'm curious about," he says.

The alternative college is getting ready to graduate its first eight students. Founder Michelle Jones has much bigger plans: to change the face of higher education itself.TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Austin Louis will soon graduate from the Wayfinding Academy after deciding against a traditional four-year college.

There are just 23 students, ranging in age from 18 to 43, in the current building, a former YWCA near James John Elementary School. As it grows, the academy can hold up to 100 students and support staff.

Jones says she wants to keep it small. If the model is still successful, they would spin off another academy, then another, until, Jones says, "it's not needed anymore because we've changed higher education to see students as a whole person."

Meg Lamberger, a formerly shy high schooler from Beaverton, is using the experience to explore aquaculture — building seascapes out of driftwood, seaweed and other aquatic plants.

"I think that's one of the cool things about Wayfinding Academy, that I can explore it and see if that's what I want to do," Lamberger says, adding: "It might seem unconventional, but going to a school that teaches you to be a whole person is ultimately going to lead to a better career path."

Lamberger says she didn't think that she would go to college until she found the Wayfinding Academy online. Now a first-year student, she worried she would get lost in a larger campus. But she likes the culture of the Wayfinding Academy.

"Everybody just kind of helps each other," she says. "The community is really intentional. There's no staff member that I can't talk to and there's no student that I couldn't collaborate with."

Tracking psychological health

Time will tell how successful the graduates are.

Many of the soon-to-be graduates the Tribune talked to still aren't exactly sure what they want to do for a career.

Wayfinding Academy makes a promise that its students will acquire six different skills, such as communicating effectively, engaging in critical thinking and finding their way back to their purpose when they feel lost. Jones is also engaging in a longitudinal study of all the students with an annual 13-point survey to track scientifically valid points of psychological health.

Even those who don't know yet what they want to do to earn back the $21,000 total sticker price for Wayfinding say they find the experience valuable.

TJ Brown, who is about to graduate, went to a more traditional four-year university in South Carolina but dropped out.

"I just wasn't happy there and I didn't think I was getting an education there," Brown says. "I felt more forced to do specific things."

Since joining the academy, Brown has done three art shows.

"I think Wayfinding is more about finding your purpose — a job that you're interested in. I feel like it's not a waste here."

The two-year program involves nine core classes. Most have to do with strategies for how to be successful in the modern world, such as communicating effectively, "making good choices," and understanding one's personality type.

Students also get a guide, a sort of life coach that helps them turn their passions into concrete paths toward employment.

"I kind of think of it as an academic adviser, but in a more holistic way," says guide Sarah Hassouneh. Through 45-minute weekly advice meetings and another weekly meeting among an accountability group of four to five students, students seek guidance, bounce off their ideas and track their progress.

The process of recruitment at Wayfinding Academy also is a bit different. For one, it's called "matchmaking."

Lead matchmaker Tiana Tozer says a poor match for a Wayfinding Academy student is "somebody who knows exactly what they want." For example, someone who wants to go into medicine or mechanics or something else that has a prescribed course of study and certification.

Wayfinding, Tozer says, is for people who are creative and aren't sure how to use their passions in the world. She adds that people like these are not uncommon.

"I'm on my seventh iteration of 'what I want to be when I grow up,' "Tozer says, noting her past as a business owner, a public relations professional, a humanitarian aid worker and more. She says the Wayfinding experience teaches an explicit curriculum — such as effective networking and understanding the importance of community — that helps students to make whatever their next leap is.

As in life outside of college, Jones says, the real task in their student projects is learning how to see the stepping stones to success, manage responsibilities and cope with the unexpected parts of the journey. "For most of them, it's not a clear, linear thing."

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