Oregonians have always valued progress. We were the first to decriminalize cannabis, implement a bottle bill, and use a gas tax that goes to roads among other firsts. Enter Michelle Jones, a former professor from Concordia University in Northeast Portland. Carrying the traditions of progress forward- Michelle has decided to tackle some of the biggest social and economical issues of our time- the skyrocketing cost of higher education and that same already expensive education’s inability to guarantee meaningful career preparation.
One of the first things I told her was that I had watched this terrific video about her vision. If you feel like you don’t want to watch a video right now, here’s the skinny- higher education is broken. It costs way too much. Couldn’t we find a way to make it more affordable and more effective by not striving for constant exponential growth- like a business? Wouldn’t it benefit students if we started from the ground up and focused on community? She contends that money is the driving force in American education today. What if education was the driving force behind education? She doesn’t just talk, though. In this video she explains that she is leaving her post at Concordia (and surely the accompanied career security) to start in a completely new paradigm.
Dr. Jones was kind enough to answer my e-mails asking about how she and a select few pioneers are trying to change the game, but it quickly turned into an invitation to see the site of the revolution itself- Wayfinding Academy. Situated in a neighborhood in North Portland in a former YWCA building, the College immediately comes across as a great place for the incubation of ideas. Cozy is a word that comes to mind as I was greeted by the founder and president- who was so kind as to humor even this purveyor of non-journalism.
The goal of Wayfinding Academy is not to grow for the sake of growing- to one day eclipse the University of Oregon and become a super university. That path is well-worn. At Wayfinding, their goal is to reach about 80 students in an overall community of about 150 people. The students work in a cohort that will finish together in a 2-year period. They begin each year by ascertaining their common values, which act as an important touchstone throughout their educational experience. The students have then bought in with more than just their tuition dollars.
From there, the curriculum is both broad as well as specific. Students pick up a host of what we commonly refer to as ‘life skills’. Many of these are things that fall through the cracks in secondary education. They learn about food, budgeting, and the basic skills of website design and the use of technology such as the powerful Google Suite. Dr. Jones even referred to much of this as ‘adulting skills’ that truly round out the individual and prepare them for the larger world. Also relevant with real-world examples are units on how to ‘travel-hack,’ or use the power of the internet with the application of good budgeting to navigate the different ways that people can physically explore our world.
The curriculum allows for many long breaks and even plans for large group trips to places like the storied Camino de Santiago footpath in Spain. This is arguably the most classic pilgrimage hike in the western world. While talking to Jones, I noticed that she had tattoos around her ankle of seashells- the classic motif of the Camino experience. Six shells indicate that she is a well-traveled pilgrim on that route, and as such she encourages her students to spread their wings and sample the adventure in our world beyond the classroom.
Each student creates their own program that is very focused. According to Jones, a 2-year time period is enough time to figure out what a person wants to do and to start doing it. Two internships are a requirement for graduation- so nobody is left feeling like they can only theoretically achieve what they hope to in their careers. This hands-on approach to education is not only hoped to be more effective, it’s necessitated by the fact that the Wayfinding building only has 1 classroom (although with many community spaces)! Students will finish their experience well prepared for their careers as well as their lives ahead.
In the proud tradition of firsts, Portland is at it again. What Michelle Jones is envisioning is a completely unique contribution, and in fact it is the only institution of its kind in the US. Situated in the historic St. John’s Neighborhood, Wayfinding Academy will surely give and take a whole lot of flavor from the already funky neighborhood. Follow more of the journey at their website here.