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.
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."
STARTING A NEW COLLEGE IS EASIER SAID THAN DONE
Starting a new institute of higher education is not a walk in the park.
There's "this intense feeling of 'there's so much to do' and really wanting to do it well," says Tina Hart, director of student services and campus activities.
Getting their 9,000-square-foot building ready to open in six weeks was the first hurdle. Getting accredited by Oregon's Higher Education Coordinating Commission was the next.
Though it was a lot of work, Wayfinding Academy founder and President Michelle Jones said the state was pretty supportive.
"I think the state of Oregon is generally on board with progressive thinking and alternative education," Jones says. "Everybody I've worked with over there has been really in favor of something like Wayfinding existing."
Getting accreditation through the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, a nonprofit regional accreditation body, has been more difficult. Jones says the paperwork actually was easier and has been ready for a while, but the commission has delayed applications for months due to the lack of permanent leadership.
Being accredited through the regional body means recognition by the U.S. Department of Education, unlocking any federal financial aid, such as Pell grants.
There are eight Wayfinding Academy staff members, many part-time or working double-duty.
Tuition is the same for everyone, and Jones says the 23 students have 23 different financial plans to pay it off over up to four years without accumulating debt.
The college had a budget of about $350,000 in 2017.
Out of 15 students who started in the first cohort, a little more than half are left. Jones says many of those who dropped out tried to work full-time while doing the program and it was too hard. Others figured out what they wanted their career path to be, and left early to pursue their careers.
"We're still in touch with all of them," Jones says.
By means of comparison, the percentage of Oregon students who graduate traditional higher education institutions in six years or less is about 63 percent.