How College Can Help Students Uncover Their Passion

Featuring Guest -
Michelle Jones
April 14, 2020
| Evolve
032
hosted by: Brandon Stover
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After 15 years teaching Leadership and Organizational Behavior courses in the traditional college system, Michelle Jones set out to create a one-of-a-kind educational experience designed to help you find your way, stretch your mind and grow your skills so you can live life on purpose. With 5 years in operation, Wayfinding Academy has over 100 years in faculty experience leading students ranging from 17 to 46 years old through courses titled like “the good life”, through 100’s of community events and partnerships, and learn and explore trips to places like Spain, Hong Kong, & Portugal. Yet this college has no grades, no textbooks, and no English 101 course. Instead students weave classroom and applied learning together with their own interests in a portfolio-based program.

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Books Mentioned:

Coming Soon

Follow The Guest:

Wayfinding Academy | Twitter | Facebook | LinkedIn | Instagram

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What were you experiencing during your 15 years in the traditional college system prior to Wayfinding that made you say this has to change?

What originally drew you to becoming an educator?

Now the small spark for the idea came up in class project called we don't need no education. What sort of questions were you asking then that let this come to mind?

When you decided to actually do this you found a ton of resources that said what is wrong with higher ed but none offering alternatives. How did you start mapping out an alternative?

Once you had a map, how did you get Wayfinding Academy started and get it's first students in the doors?

At the core of the Wayfinding Academy is the idea that there is more than one way to do life and colleges should help students to decide what life to pick rather than some arbitrary checklist to follow. Why is this so important?

How did you determine which things would help students to develop their passions and which skills should be taught to prepare them for life after college?

The course also have no textbooks, grades, or siloed classical subjects like English, science, humanities. How did you bake these classical subjects into the unique core curriculum and labs that student participate in?

The students also have a lot of agency in designing their curriculum and focus around their passion and what they want to do after college. How do you help facilitate this and provide the resources, mentors, and network needed?

How do you go about building the network connections needed to align outside projects, mentors, and internships with whatever unique niche thing students might be passionate in?

How do you help your students take that next step after college?

Does having them create a portfolio of their projects and skills give them something they can leverage for this rather than a resume?

What do you think podcasting offers for students as a platform?

What is it about tiny homes that you feel allows you to focus on your legacy work?

What does leaving a legacy mean to you and what do you ultimately hope that is?

How do our decisions to follow our interests and our passions affect others?

How we can push the world to Evolve?

I think the biggest thing we can do is constantly ask why and keep asking why. We use  an activity around here frequently called the five why's to get at the depths of why people choose to do what they do or why they believe what they believe or why they care about what they care about. And I think with an open, loving curiosity, constantly asking why and engaging in that conversation is probably one of our best ways to evolve.
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How College Can Help Students Uncover Their Passion

Featuring Guest -

Michelle Jones

hosted by: Brandon Stover
032

April 14, 2020

After 15 years teaching Leadership and Organizational Behavior courses in the traditional college system, Michelle Jones set out to create a one-of-a-kind educational experience designed to help you find your way, stretch your mind and grow your skills so you can live life on purpose. With 5 years in operation, Wayfinding Academy has over 100 years in faculty experience leading students ranging from 17 to 46 years old through courses titled like “the good life”, through 100’s of community events and partnerships, and learn and explore trips to places like Spain, Hong Kong, & Portugal. Yet this college has no grades, no textbooks, and no English 101 course. Instead students weave classroom and applied learning together with their own interests in a portfolio-based program.

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This article is sourced from the Evolve Podcast, a top startup podcast. Listen or subscribe below.

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Scroll to the end of the article for selected links to important resources mentioned in this episode.

What were you experiencing during your 15 years in the traditional college system prior to Wayfinding that made you say this has to change?

What originally drew you to becoming an educator?

Now the small spark for the idea came up in class project called we don't need no education. What sort of questions were you asking then that let this come to mind?

When you decided to actually do this you found a ton of resources that said what is wrong with higher ed but none offering alternatives. How did you start mapping out an alternative?

Once you had a map, how did you get Wayfinding Academy started and get it's first students in the doors?

At the core of the Wayfinding Academy is the idea that there is more than one way to do life and colleges should help students to decide what life to pick rather than some arbitrary checklist to follow. Why is this so important?

How did you determine which things would help students to develop their passions and which skills should be taught to prepare them for life after college?

The course also have no textbooks, grades, or siloed classical subjects like English, science, humanities. How did you bake these classical subjects into the unique core curriculum and labs that student participate in?

The students also have a lot of agency in designing their curriculum and focus around their passion and what they want to do after college. How do you help facilitate this and provide the resources, mentors, and network needed?

How do you go about building the network connections needed to align outside projects, mentors, and internships with whatever unique niche thing students might be passionate in?

How do you help your students take that next step after college?

Does having them create a portfolio of their projects and skills give them something they can leverage for this rather than a resume?

What do you think podcasting offers for students as a platform?

What is it about tiny homes that you feel allows you to focus on your legacy work?

What does leaving a legacy mean to you and what do you ultimately hope that is?

How do our decisions to follow our interests and our passions affect others?

How we can push the world to Evolve?

I think the biggest thing we can do is constantly ask why and keep asking why. We use  an activity around here frequently called the five why's to get at the depths of why people choose to do what they do or why they believe what they believe or why they care about what they care about. And I think with an open, loving curiosity, constantly asking why and engaging in that conversation is probably one of our best ways to evolve.

Selected Links & Resources From This Episode

Books Mentioned:

Coming Soon

Follow The Guest:

Wayfinding Academy | Twitter | Facebook | LinkedIn | Instagram

FULL EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

Hey everyone, welcome to evolve. How many of you went to college, checked all the boxes, getting to the end, and had no idea what you wanted to do with your life? I was in the same boat and that's why after 15 years teaching leadership and organizational behavior courses in a traditional college system. Today's guests set out to create a one of a kind educational experience designed to help you find your way, stretch your mind and grow your skills so you can live life on purpose with five years in operation college has over a hundred years and faculty experience leading students from ranging from 17 to 46 years old. There are courses, title, like the good life and through hundreds of community events and partnerships and learn and explore trips to places like Spain, Hong Kong and Portugal. Yet this college has no grades, no textbooks and no English one Oh one course.

Instead students, we've classroom and applied learning together with their own insurance in a portfolio based program and compared to the 70% of students who graduate with crippling student debt. Every graduate of this college has left with $0 million in student debt. Being noticed as one of the most inspirational, influential and effective professors students have taken a course from. She has shared her brilliance in colleges around the nation. Exclaimed how college could be done better on the TEDx stage and organized and supported social impact events such as super thank TEDx Mount hood and world domination summit. Aside from helping dozens of students navigate their own path, this revolutionary has shared her own journey in the New York times, the Chronicle of higher education, the Huffington post ed surge, and a bounty full amounts of local publications and podcasts. I'm honored to welcome founder, president and chief academic officer at wayfinding Academy, a magician herself, Michelle Jones.

Wow. Thank you so much Brandan. Really good to be here.

Absolutely. Well, I'd like to first start with your 15 years of experience that you've had in the traditional college system prior to wayfinding and what during that time made you say this is, that has to change.

Wow. as you might imagine, it was probably lots of small things and medium-size things that happened during that time. I don't know that there was any one particular moment. I think there were lots of small moments the best way that aye. Now, looking back in retrospect, I don't think I realized it all at the time, but looking back, I think the most influential thing was having lots of conversations with students. So given the courses that I taught, I would typically get them when they were at that stage that you described an intro where they were at the very end of their college career. And we're feeling pretty frustrated because they, they felt like, okay, well I'm about to graduate and I don't really know but going to do next and I don't have next steps and I don't have my [inaudible] purpose and I'm not sure what I just spent the last four or five years, which is what my class was all about.

Asking those questions, you know, what are your values? What's your passion? What's your purpose? How do we get started? Which they loved, that they rightfully so, we're angry that nobody had been asking them that all along the journey or even, especially at the beginning of the journey, so that they were making really informed, intentional choices. So many years of conversations with them and realizing that they were totally right there. Their criticisms were totally legitimate and aligned with my philosophy of what I, I thought the purpose of college was. I thought what I was going to be doing as a faculty member was helping young adults figure out what they wanted to do with their lives and start doing it. And it felt like my job was mostly sorting and grading and valuating people and not, I mean, I was able to change it into being about their purpose and passion, but I still, but mostly I was expected to do that other stuff.

So it was just sort of a culmination of years of that. And because I taught at various places, seeing it, that same story play out no matter what size institution, what part of the country, any of that. It was all sort of the same. And so, yeah, I guess it was about four years before I quit being a professor, I was like, I think I need to do something different. And I didn't know what it was going to be. So it took me a little while to pull my ideas together and talk to some other wise people. I think I chose the hardest possible thing to do. Right. Like a college from scratch. I don't recommend it. It's real hard. It's also the most joyful thing that I've ever done and I wouldn't, I wouldn't be doing anything else for sure. My life's work.

But very challenging.

Originally drew you to becoming an educator?

Oh, I, yeah, I think that was also a sort of a slow evolution as well. I had several mentors when I was in college who I thought did, did that really well, being an educator and being a mentor and being a guide. And I don't know if it's because I thought it out or that's just who they were, or maybe a bit of both. But I had at least three individuals who were professors of mine in college who really would sit down with me and talk to me about what I wanted to do next and introduced me to different options and pathways and ideas. And then if I pick one, they would help me move down further on that path through recommendation letters or reaching out to contacts they had or whatever.

And so I think it was through that experience thinking, you know, maybe one day I [inaudible] want to be this for some other people who are in a similar situation. And so that's what led me, right, right. When I graduated from college, I had to make the choice between taking a full time job in, in a company that had offered me a really nice for, you know, entry level job coming right out of the college. It was a really sweet deal. Or choosing to go to graduate school into a PhD program with the intention to become a professor. And so I ended up choosing the ladder and really glad that I did. It was just, well, a solid choice. It was an interesting one to make at the age of 21 when you really know what you're choosing. But I'm glad that that was the choice that I made and then I've stuck with it. I didn't get to teach for several years after making that choice, you know, you don't have to wait a while, but as soon as I stepped into a classroom, I was not super great at it. You know, nobody is first time they do anything, but I still knew that that was, but that was what I was meant to do.

Hmm. Yeah. Well, you originally kind of had some of the sparks of wayfinding come up for you during a project you did called the, we don't need no education. What sort of questions were you asking then that kinda had these things bubbling up?

Yeah, that was such a fun time and looking back at it, I feel so, I think I was really just naive when I was having, I mean this was, Oh gosh, I always struggle with, I think this was in 15, this would have been 15 years ago, something like that. It was around 2005 I think, and I was teaching full time at Providence college and it was a seminar. We, I had several students that I'd already had in class before and a colleague and I who also knew these students. We said, Hey, we're going to put together a seminar once a week seminar where we get together, we share a meal and we talk about a topic of interest, all of us, what is our topic? And the thing that we heard most from students was they wanted to explore more stuff that we had talked about in our classes, but more in depth about why does the education system work the way it does.

And the project we gave ourselves, I think there were about eight students in the course or something like that. And the project we gave ourselves was if we could design our own college, what would it look like? And we read articles and we went on field trips to alternative high schools. And we watched movies about the topic and we did all these things. And so at the end we kind of [inaudible] designed what we would like. And that was probably my first realization, even though it took me a long time to do anything with it, that, that it was possible to do it differently. You know, the, all the ideas that the students had and my colleague and I about, yeah. You know, college would be more effective at helping young people figure out their path in life if this or if that or if it didn't do this or that didn't exist and back then it was just a mental, a Dame of, you know, what could we imagine. But that's, that stuck with me and I still have the notes. I was actually just looking for them the other day for another reason. I still have like the folder of notes from that class. I haven't found it yet, but I've seen it in the last couple of years. I just need to track that down. I'd be curious to see how much of the stuff that they said back then. Actually way finding and like lodged itself in my brain and I held onto it all those years.

Yeah, that would be fascinating.

Yeah, because I think it was a total joke that they said that. I do remember for sure they said it would be great if all colleges had like a chocolate fondue fountain.

[Inaudible]

And I thought, well that's not realistic, that's fun. But I guess I mentioned that in some interview at some point a few years ago. And so one of our students last year at one of our gatherings, like one of our campus wide parties she brought in a chocolate fondue out.

Nice.

Have one here. Use it often.

Perfect. Well, when you were basically taking the steps to make wayfinding and even when you were doing that project before you came across a lot of resources that, you know, said what's wrong with education but normally offering any alternatives. So how did you start mapping out that first alternative?

Yeah. I, I, I've long told students this when we [inaudible] talked about passion based leadership and passion driven work that a lot of your, if you're not sure what you want to do with your life, look to what from you and look to what makes you angry. And because there is often where your passion in life and you just have to figure out how to harness that and what to do with it. And so one of the things that was growing in, in frustration for me right before I started wayfinding was that there were so many books coming out and articles mostly books I was reading at the time. Now I read more articles than books, but it hasn't really changed that there's a lot of people who work in higher education or who are journalists who are deeply studied higher education that can clearly and very well-researched, rough outline all the things that are wrong with higher education.

Yeah. And I thought, I mean I learned a lot from reading those. That was very helpful. They didn't tell me a whole heck of a lot that I didn't already know as somebody who had both been a student in it for eight years and then as a faculty member in it for 15 years. But I thought, well this is great. I kept expecting at the end of every article and at the end of every book for them for there to be a sort of a wrap up of like, so here's what we can do and here's what I've chosen to do about it, or here's, and there was never that, that never existed. So several people kept, as I started talking about my frustrations, people were like, well, why don't you write a book about this or that or this? And I was like, no, that, that exists, that there's plenty of that out there, but there aren't just actual alternatives.

So I guess I'm more of a, a Dewar than a writer about her. So I thought, well, I'm going to give this a try and I can be, the first thing I did was start saying to people that I worked with or that I had connected with through my other volunteer efforts that I've been doing and said, you know, I think I'm, I think my next step is this. I think I'm going to quit this job as a professor and I'm going to start a college. What do you think? And do you want to be involved and do, do you want to be part of my original brainstorming team? And I rented out like a community room, had a local space and invited anybody who has even remotely said they were interested. And I had about two dozen people show up and we had like a little half day retreat that was like, I dunno.

Okay, we might start a college. What, what would it do? How would this go? What do we need to know? What do we need to think about? And from that moment on, I realized I have to do this because all of these people plus dozens and dozens and dozens more, it turns out it's more like thousands more want this to exist. And so from that point on I was like, well, this, I have to do this. And not all the ideas are my own. I gathered lots of ideas from lots of people. And then my task was to just put them together into a coherent model. That could be a, what's operationalized,

Right? Actually executed. Or once you, once you had a map, how did you get a wayfinding Academy started and get its first students through the doors?

Oh my gosh, that's probably way longer than you have a side.

Right.

But the sh the short version is that I assembled a core team who was going to be the founding team. So they all opted into being the founding team of this thing that never existed before and we didn't know how we were going to do. And we gave ourselves one year to get ready for operations and and the, and those people were all people that I had worked with before on something, whether it was the world domination summit or TEDx or something like that, and had a wide range of knowledge and skills so that they could kind of play whatever role we needed to. But they all also understood how higher education worked. So that team worked really hard for that year. And we had to do weird things like what we knew we had to do. Things like go through the state, the Oregon higher education coordinating commission, their authorization process to be a real college that grants degrees and all of that.

And so I took that on mostly while other people were figuring out all of our financial systems and bookkeeping and recruitment and all of our marketing and media and branding and all of those sorts of things. So we, we ran early on in that year we ran a crowdfunding campaign and we still hold the title, I think, as the highest funded Indiegogo campaign in Oregon history. Yeah. We raised just over $200,000, which was our rough estimate of what we thought we needed for the first year to get everything up and running. And so we raised that from about 700 people whose names are now up on our founder's wall and our, and our campus here. They are the ones that helped us get going. So it was a huge community effort and, and people popped up out of unexpected places to say, I really want to help.

How can I help? And so some of them became board members and some became volunteers with us and some helped us with recruiting students. Our first cohort of students who I'm still in touch with, almost all of them. There were 15 of them in the first cohort. Eight of them ended up graduating two years later. Some of them are now returning because they had family interfere with their family life and just things going on. And so they had to leave and some of them are returning now to finish their two years with us, which is kinda fun. But they came from all kinds of weird places, but they self identified as people who either knew the edge higher education system wouldn't work for them because they had tried it and it didn't, or they had gone through the higher education system already, but it didn't help them get what they wanted and they wanted another chance at it.

And they came from all over the country. I think in our first cohort, I think it was 70% of them were not from Portland shocked us. We thought one, like people are gonna move to Portland to do this. And sure enough they, they did and they still do. But it's a lot of them in that first year. And this is still true now. Come through personal referrals. Somebody, you know, say you know, somebody you've got a cousin or a niece or nephew or somebody in your community who you know for whom this will be a good fit. And then you say to them, you know, I just learned about this thing. You really ought to look into it. I, I think I know you pretty well and I got to know this thing pretty well. So I think this might be a good match and where our best, that's where our best people come from. Still

Amazing. Well at the core of the Academy is this idea that there's more than one way to live life and the colleges should really help students to decide what life to pick rather than just some arbitrary checklist to follow. So why is this so important? And so at the core of the university,

Yeah, I think so. A small, a small philosophical tangent. I, I believe the world would be a better place if people were doing work that they loved. And I think that our society doesn't pay very much attention to that traditionally. And it's more about safety or security or stability and trains people to want there to be a very linear checkbox like path to get to that security and space be instability place. And I feel like that's probably a promise that was like, I'm, I'm 43 now and my parents were made that promise by society and I think that more or less it was true for them. It was definitely true for our grandparents, right? Mostly for our parents probably. But that has not been true for my generation and it's even less and less true for the generations after. And so I think we're giving young adults are false promise.

So like we haven't caught up as a society and as our messaging and as higher education institutions. And I think right now in the current pandemic situation that we're in, it's a very weird example of how you can't count on the things that are supposedly really stable, steady industries or jobs or whatever. Like the jobs that are like really solid right now. The people who are declared essential workers are the things that we would have in the past thought, Oh, that's not a stable, steady job working at a grocery store. How would that, no, but those are our most essential people right now. And so I put it at the core of wayfinding philosophy because I believe that it's one, if you can figure out what you're passionate about and do work that you love, then art, you will be happier throughout your life. Everybody around you will be in our society, ultimately will be a better place.

The more people we have doing that. And you've gotta be prepared for all kinds of changes happening in the future. And if you, we can get all of our students to get a very basic set of skills that will help them no matter what they choose to do. And if they change their minds later, which they will because that's how we are and the world is changing and our interests are changing, but they'll have a basic set of skills. So the, you mentioned the good life of course in the core curriculum, our entire core curriculum is things like how to communicate effectively, how to work with other people, how to make good choices, science, technology and society and what we need to know about that. So it's just human skills that every human being, if they have these basic sets of things, they'll be able to deploy them in a multitude of ways to the rest of their life. And they'll have the skill of knowing how to reconnect to their purpose and passion when they get lost a little bit. Cause we all get lost a little bit and have to refine it at different times of our lives. And I want to equip them with, with all of those skills. And if they have all that, then they probably can get a job doing whatever the heck it is that they want to do, you know?

Yeah. How did you guys determine which skills you should prepare them with after college?

Yeah, that was an interesting, I basically that founding team we had at the beginning and some additional auxiliary people who were faculty members who I had taught with who I respected their opinion a lot or community members and board members whose opinions I really valued. I just asked a bunch of people like if you were making a core curriculum that all young adults went through a what would it include? And I sort of collected all those ideas plus my own ideas from my years of teaching and put it together and then and decide and then sort of decided how to combine them into interdisciplinary classes. So let's see. So all of our classes weird, nerdy, higher ed. Side note we're a two year college that grants an associates degree and associates of arts is what our students leave with. It's called their degrees called self and society.

And go through all of this with the Oregon higher education coordinating commission. Our courses have to have the same number of credits as any other community college in the state of Oregon that granted associate's degree in math and science and writing and philosophy and humanities and whatever. So I had to keep an eye towards that and map out. I chose nine courses. And so I mapped out nine courses that contain all of that, but in an interdisciplinary interwoven fashion. So that's why we have a course called understanding ourselves and others, which is a little bit about psychology and sociology and teamwork and business and you know, a lot of different things.

Right. How did you bake those classical subjects into the core curriculum?

That's you, I usually empower the faculty to figure out how to do that. They know when they go into teaching a course, what a course we, me and my early team wrote the course descriptions, which are pretty generic, but do point at the main areas that each, each of those core courses would include. And then I work with each faculty member to figure out how to bake all that stuff in. I also hire intentionally. So for example one of my favorite examples is our science technology and society class. I've had three different people teach it so far over the four years and one of them was a physicist, one of them was an environmental lawyer and one of them, the guy who is teaching it right now, wrapping it up in an our faculty is showing up amazingly right now for our students in a very individualized like calling them on the phone everyday kind of a way since they can't meet in person for the final week of the term. So he is, his background is in environmental biology. So I hire people who I know will automatically bring into the class their expertise area so that we can make sure that in that case we need science to be covered, a bit of math to be covered and then some humanities. So I just try to hire people who I know that that's what they're going to bring based on their base of knowledge no matter what.

Yeah. Well the students also have quite a bit of agency in sort of designing the curriculum. And focus around their passions and what they want to do after college. How do you guys help facilitate this and provide the resources, the mentors and the network needed to make those things happen?

This is one of our strengths in this time, in the moment that we're in right now. It's, we are a semi structured and semi unstructured academic curriculum. There's a lot of self directed learning that happens and we have a weekly self directed learning seminar where we help students to build those self-directed skills, which again prepares them for life in whatever career they do right now. For example, almost everybody working from home. If you do not have skills as a self directed, self motivated person, this is going to be hard. So we support them weekly with the seminar in that every course I as you mentioned in the introduction, we don't have grades and we don't have tests and we don't have textbooks. So every course is project based. So throughout every course students are doing projects and they have a lot of agency in the format that they do those.

So let's say they have a final project right now for engaging with information, which they do and they are doing from their own homes but talking to the faculty member multiple times every week about what they're doing individually. But some are choosing to make a short documentary, some are doing a podcast, some are writing an essay or an article or making a website or whatever it is that they chose to do for their project that helps tie in their personal interests and helps them build a skill that they're working on building. And the other support system that they have in addition to the amazing faculty is their guides. So every student at wayfinding gets assigned a guide when they first join us. And the idea is that they stick together for two years, that student in that guide and every week they meet individually for 45 minutes to an hour.

And the guide's role is to help the students make the most out of their two years here and get ready for their next steps. So in the early years or monks, I guess the the guide is asking questions like, okay, so what you're doing this project for engaging with information, what are you interested in? How do you wanna approach it? How can we take some of your interest in social justice or art or engineering or whatever the student is interested in into this project and fulfill the, what the faculty members asking for in the class. So in the early days until the students build their own self directedness cause it's a process of unlearning what the education system has taught us. So we start there and then by the time they're in their second year, usually the guide's not asking questions like that anymore. The guides saying, Hey, so what are you going to do for this project, for this class?

And she was like, well, I've got this idea, I'm going to do this and this and this. And then the guide says, well, how can I help? And the students, you know, do you know anybody, you haven't had anybody in your connection who I could interview about such and such. And the guide will be like, Oh yeah, I do. Here's some connections. Or the guide might say, Oh, you know what, I don't know anybody who does skateboarding. But I do know that I, I do think that this other guide or this other person on the wayfinding crew has somebody, let me find out for you. And so right now, in these very odd times to which we're living, that human scale and community focus is coming in as a huge strength for us. We know every student, we have 17 students enrolled right now and we have 19 alumni.

And in these moments we're able to reach out to every one of them individually, find out how, how they're doing, what they need it, what ways we can support as the students are wrapping up their courses because we know them really well, we're able to customize and individualize everything for them in a way that helps them successfully achieve their goals. Even if we're having to change the format and structure a little bit. And I'm able, I, you know, as the president of the college, and I have to decide things like, at what point are we going to stop meeting in person, which we did a little over a week ago. And at what point are we planning on resuming classes and how are we handling this and what do we want to do? And I can get on a call with all of my faculty for the term, which is three people.

And I can say, let's talk about this and decide this together. Let's make a team decision and let's all be on the same page. And let's in all three classes, let's do the same thing. And then I can get on a call with my four guides and I can say, okay, guys, what are we gonna do about this? So it's operating at a human scale is I think it's just a healthier, more effective way to do it in the first place. We don't need to be this small. We can be bigger than this and still do that. But it's proving to be a very strange advantage in this moment.

Mmm. Well, speaking to all of the students' different passions and kind of, you know, whatever niche thing that they might be interested in, how do you guys develop the connections to, you know, provide the mentors or like internships or things like that?

Yeah, we have multiple layers of support for that. We have an internship program coordinator. She meets with every student individually. So in addition to their guide, their guide is also talking to them about this.

Wow.

The program coordinator and she meets with each student, find out what they're interested in and she has a database of internships that we've been building over the last five years. And so she can share that with students and say, scroll through this, see if you get any ideas. She teaches them about things like LinkedIn and how to, I just had a student can build their first LinkedIn profile this week, connect with me and say, Hey, can I go through all of your connections and see if I can find anybody who I want to meet? And I said absolutely

Nice.

Part of it is that but our first go to source is our luminaries community. So we have a interesting financial model. One piece of which is like we have a financial model of this unlike most colleges and one piece of which is that we have this rather than having lots of big major donors, we have lots of smaller come, more smaller committed donors. So we have like a monthly donor program so people can give anything. I think our lowest right now is like $2 a month and the highest is $500 a month. And they give on a monthly basis and that opps them into what we call our luminaries and they get special invitations to things, discounts on our courses, our learning, explore trips, all of that. And they self select and say, I would really be interested in mentoring a student for an internship or I'd like to provide advice and guidance on these subject areas.

Or I have these connections. Or when a student moves to town from across the country and they need a place to stay for a few weeks while they find housing. I'm happy to house people. So they, those luminaries raise their hand and say, I want to support in these ways. And so they're our first group that we go to. If we have, if we have something that kind of stumps the guides and the guys are like, Oh, I don't know anybody who's got that background, let's check the luminaries database and let's see if we've got someone in there. So it's all community. I mean the support of the community is the only way that we could do what we do.

Absolutely. It sounds like there's a, you know, an entire tribe backing each one of these students, which is much more than, you know, you usually get in college where you have an advisor and the advisor kind of shows you a list of stuff that you can pick from. And that's about it.

Yes. And so I think, I hope that our students can feel the support of that tribe all the time. I think sometimes they take it a little bit for granted as we all tend to do when we're going through times of transition. But I hope that the students can feel that support and that caring and one day can feel, you know, the gratitude that, that, that they had that,

Hmm. Well, once a students get through the program, how are you guys helping them take that next step after college and then kind of measuring the results of, you know, the efficiency of your guys' program?

Yeah, efficiencies and interesting words. I would say that there's quite a number of things that we don't do super efficient, efficiently in the standard definition of the word. Partly because it's such, such a human connection driven model and it's hard to implement lots of efficiencies in that. Now that said, we have a lot of behind the scenes systems that make that stuff efficient so that the primary bulk of our time can be spent in those personal connections with students, try to size the back end of things. We usually what happens, so their students are with us for two years, which is six terms. We're basically on a trimester system. And by the time they enter their final term, which are our, we have our next class of graduates is scheduled to graduate at the end of July. Their final term is scheduled to begin at the very end of April at the moment.

And so as they enter this final term, we are, their guides are already have been in conversation with them about what they want to do next and have helped them set up internships, prepare for that, those next steps. The vast majority of our students do not end up applying for jobs in a traditional way that most people do. They usually get their jobs through connections to our community or an internship that they had or something like that. And almost always by the time they graduate before graduation, they are already starting their next step. So whether that's in some cases this not very many, so far of our 19 graduate so far, only three have gone on to do a four year college afterwards. We findings designed to be an alternative to taking that path. But every once in a while there's somebody who decides, Oh, I, I really want to do, you know, English and philosophy.

I maybe want to be a professor, so I need to go onto a four year college. So we help them do the app. That's what's going to happen. And they have those steps before they graduate typically. Some of them choose to do gap years next or some sort of a travel experience is so far from our first two cohorts of graduates. We've hired one student from each cohort to work for wayfinding afterwards and in a full time role. Yeah. We also hire them to work in small, other part time roles. So we just kind of make sure, and we, we check, our whole community is constantly checking and we get them all surprise presence for graduation. So for each graduating student, we get them a gift that helps them with their next steps and also holds us accountable to make sure that we know their next steps and their next steps because we then need to get them a gift related to that.

Right. So it holds all of us accountable for making that part of the conversation. And then we just, I mean it's only, we're still new, so the measuring after the fact after graduation thing is we haven't done lots of it so far. We've had two cohorts that have graduated. We still are in touch with all of them, so we know what they're doing. Either informally just because we, we text them or email them and keep up with them or meet them for coffee or whatever, or they're still involved or some of them still. We have alumni now who are teaching classes at wayfinding, which is great. So we kind of keep track. We have reluctantly put in place an alumni survey that asks them to anonymously tell us their job title and how much money they make. Because several bureaucratic agencies have said that that's the information they want.

And we pushed back against that. Like if you look at the alumni page on our website, you have profiles of every one of our alumni and it talks about what they're doing now. And so what they're doing now is not about their job title or how much money they're making or any of that. And by and large, they don't care about that either. They, they want to be doing work that they care about and they want to be able to sustain themselves. And so far they've been able to do that. And some of them are making really good money and some of them are not. And all of them are doing something that they've intentionally chosen to do.

Hmm. Well, I think the amazing part is, is you guys helping them to, you know, first off, identify what they want to do, but then as you meet them through this process and get them towards the end, helping them take those next steps, whether that is going off to a four year college cause you realize, Hey, I want to be a doctor or a lawyer or something like that needs that you know, the pathway done. Or if they decide to actually I want to do this other thing, you're helping them make that path the entire way.

Yeah. Yeah. That's one of the greatest joys and I look forward to years from now when we have like a lot more alumni and we can kind of see where they all are out in the world. It's, yeah. It's pretty fun.

Hmm. Well, do you you mentioned that these students are building projects along the way, kind of building a portfolio. Do they leverage that to get the internships and those things as well, like over a resume?

Yeah, they can. They, so the whole time they're with us. At the end of every term, they're, they work with their guide to choose two or three projects from that term, from their courses or their labs or their internships or whatever to put in their, so they all have an online portfolio platform that they have their own individual page on. And so every term, so six times while they're with us, they're adding stuff to it. And then right before they graduate we ask them to sort of curate it so that they can, they can turn things public facing or private facing or whatever. And then we ask them to identify five things from their portfolio that help them tell their story, that go on their visual transcript at the end. And so we they can, that the link to that portfolio ends up on their transcript.

They can share it with whoever they want. They can use it to get jobs, they can use it to show their work to whoever they want to show their work to. What I don't, I use it. So if I'm writing a letter of recommendation for a student or I'm referring a student to a colleague of mine or an acquaintance of mine for an internship, I link to their portfolio. Here's what the student's capable of doing, checkout this particular project that they did. What I, I don't know yet how, how often students use it. What we have heard so far from the feedback from graduates is we do everything on the Google platform, which seems like an obvious thing that all colleges should do. And they don't because that means that when a student grads, I mean, when I graduated from college, this was before the current technological capabilities we have now.

But like I don't have any of my work from college unless I happen to print it out and stick it in a folder and keep it. Like I don't have essays that I wrote or projects that I did or any of that. And our students, even without the portfolio they have, they understand how to use the Google suite, the entire thing. Everything is related to Google drive and calendaring. And everything, and they have all of their work forever and ever and ever, never, ever lose any of the work that they, that they do. So I think that that is a thing that they've told us that they're really grateful for is because, you know, it comes up a year later, a year and a half later, they're like, Oh, I did this project. Wait, what was that? And they can just go look it up and they have it and it's not hard to find.

Right, right. Absolutely. Well, you had mentioned I'd seen that there was been a couple of times like of labs or projects based around podcasting and I was wondering what you thought podcasting offers for students as a platform.

Yeah. It's it's been really interesting to watch which students have chosen that platform and which ones have chosen, you know, say making a video documentary or something like that. Yeah. One of the things that we're finding that adds the most value to their experience. We ask them from the, their very first class they take with us as wayfinding one-on-one. We start in that class with having them do informational interviews and then we keep having them do informational interviews. Although we change what we call it as they go throughout the program. The goal being to get them connected to lots of people who are and have those connections out in the world. When students do podcasts, that's typically what they're doing is they're going out and interviewing people, making connections. They have to choose a theme. So I feel like personally I admire all of you who choose to because you're, you're having to implement so many skills to do even just a single episode, but certainly the whole body of work. Right?

Right. Absolutely.

Yeah. I mean you have to come up with your mission and your vision and your platform. You have to understand technology. You have to engage in critical thinking if to figure out how to communicate with people and do outreach to get people scheduled to do things. You have to project manage the whole thing. I mean, even if you have help with editing, you still have to know how some of the editing sound editing technology and all of this works. So just Bret, the skills to booths, single podcast and our students, they're like, Oh yeah, I'm going to do that. And first time they do it, it's not super easy, but they just learned a whole bunch of stuff and then they just get more competent and then they can do something else and do something else. And we have a lot of students who have, at least when they start with us, they come in with various forms of learning differences or anxiety or add or ADHD or things like this.

And so giving them the flexibility to do projects in whatever format they want, let some adjust the learning environment to what they are comfortable with. And then as they grow in comfort and confidence, they can do more. So they might start out with a small podcast where they don't have to talk to someone face to face and they don't have to be on video. And they don't have to do anything remotely like public speaking, but then they move from that to something else, to something else, to something else. And by the time they graduate, even the ones you would think, there's no way, even those, by the time they graduate, they are all, they will all get up on stage in front of a hundred people and give a talk.

That's amazing.

Which I know I couldn't do that.

Yeah. I think it's powerful to allow people to kind of learn these things and discover them in their own ways and build that confidence as you said, and ways that they're maybe slightly more comfortable then being able to apply that to other areas.

Right.

So something that I found interesting about you is that human in an 84 square foot, tiny home,

This true story. Yeah.

And you, this kind of allowed you to, you know, hold back some salary as you were getting things started as well as to really just focus in on, you know, what you were working on. What do you, how do you see tiny homes kinda having that freedom for you?

Oh, I haven't thought about this in a long time. I've been living in my tiny house for, it's almost 10 years now. So, and I don't think, I don't think a tiny house is the answer for everybody. But for me, that choice was made because I knew I wanted to have a simple as possible life so that I could spend as much of my time and energy and effort doing work that I'm passionate about as I could. And for me, I, I've chosen to not have kids and to do, you know, to make my work, my life's work. And so for me, one way I could simplify was from a stuff perspective, having a small house, having very few things, having flexibility at the time that I chose the tiny house life I up until that moment, ironically I had moved around the country a lot and lived in a lot of different places.

So I thought this is perfect because now I can just take my house to different, no, it's on wheels. I can move around the country. And ironically since I moved into the tiny house, I have not, I've Portland. So I have moved it within Portland a couple of times, but I have not lived in, I mean, so that for some reason, I don't know, making an actual mobile house stopped my desire to move around a lot. I don't know. I don't know. But right now, and I did obviously did not know this at the time, but what that has enabled me to do over the last four years or so is that when I, when I quit having my traditional teaching job, Mmm. I was, I did choose for the first two years of wayfinding to not take a salary so that I could make sure that I first paid our faculty and our guides and all of those folks.

And I was able to do that because I had a simple life and very low rent and not a lot of other bills. And then I've been able to, to make other choices similar to that for the [inaudible] two years since those first two, Mmm. That I wouldn't have otherwise been able to make. And, and it relieves a source of potential stress from my life that would make it hard to show up as my full, full self when people need me. So for me, that has been how I've accomplished that. I don't think everybody, for some people living in a tiny house would actually bring stress and being, be proud. I think that's the answer. But one thing I learned from that is the importance of if you're going to do passion-driven, purpose-driven work, Mmm. You'll have to make choices. And to do that kind of work, well, it has to be your top priority or tied for your top priority.

If you have a family that's cool. If you have volunteer causes, you're involved with that school, but you're not going to be able to do all of the things and you're going to have to make choices and simplify simplification process looks different for everybody. For me, I was involved when I started wayfinding, I was involved in lots of things, which you listed nicely in the introduction and I had to give some of those up and I had to reduce some of them. So just to make choices so that I could streamline my focus and energy on this, on creating wayfinding.

Yeah. And you've called this your legacy work. So what does a legacy mean to you and what do you ultimately hope that is?

I feel like it's, we're still young and things are still in development as a college. We have already though impacted a lot of people's lives in a positive way. People who have worked here as well as students who have done the program here. Mmm. And even some that chose not to. So our application process helps them figure out what they care about and what they're, what they want to do with their life, even if they don't come to wayfinding. So we've helped in that way, which I think is a piece of legacy is, is having a positive impact on others in your community.

That's our first and primary mission. It's helping young adults figure out what they want to do and start doing it. And our second mission is to nudge a bit of change in the higher education system in the bureaucratic system that we, and I've actually been surprised, I kind of assumed that that would come later. And actually that, that seems to already be happening. I feel like we have already succeeded in accomplishing that goal, which is strange. People like yourself reach out to me to hear about how we've done this. You know, on a weekly basis, I hear from somebody at another higher education institution who wants to talk to see what they could learn from our program and implement over at their institution being covered by the Chronicle of higher education, which is, you know, a super nerdy industry publication. But like if they're keeping us in their stories, then it's like, Oh wait, there's, there's something happening here, other places as a model and for inspiration. So I feel like that has been accomplished and now the work to do is to try to expand so that we can serve more people and have a bigger impact.

Hmm. Well, the, a party of your guys is creed is what you do with your life matters to more than just you. How do you our decisions to follow our interests and our passions affect others?

I think we try to help students understand that. That's one of my favorite lines of the creed actually. Because I think that in our world it's very easy to get focused on self. And one of the things we try to help students understand from the moment they get here, even before they arrive, is that this is both about them and about us. And so we do everything in a cohort model, which helps us reinforce that message that we care and see each one of you individually and you'll have individual agency and individual choice and what you do in the classroom and the community, whatever impacts at minimum everybody else in your cohort and everybody else in the building and everybody else who's looking to you, your friends, your roommates, your family, the people you work with. And so we try to help students, which is why our curriculum is self and society, right?

Just half of our curriculum is about self and self understanding and self development. And half of it is about society so that they're getting that equal balance and trying to figure out how those two things work together. And usually we find even the students who come in the most, fiercely independent by the time they graduate, they have a different respect for and understanding of the value of we're all in this together. And I think that that's my hope. I don't know. This was a small experiment so far. My hope though is that that makes those people's future communities stronger and more healthy and more resilient because that's the approach that those individuals take. And so we just had a conversation yesterday with a student and her mom helping that student understand how hurt some of her actions have impacted other people positively and not positively.

And we try to bring that back up every chance we get that, you know, what you choose to do both in the big picture with your life, but also in the day to day choices you make, they matter to more than just you. And you have to expand your thinking beyond, Oh yeah, it's behind me. The last line of the creed, which follows that right away is that when we each live life on purpose, we all thrive. And I think those two things are connected. But if you're, if you think of your work in the world as mattering to more than just you and you're doing work that makes you come alive and that's purpose-driven, you are thriving. And then the more that we are all doing that, the more we all can thrive. Very big picture and philosophical. But

I think it's a powerful and important lesson and I'm glad that you guys are teaching and empowering that within a organization and within the student.

Yeah. We're, I mean, we're not always successful. It's not, we're definitely still learning as we go. And we've learned a lot over the four years that we've been doing this and we're getting better edit. But it's hard work. Some of the things that we're attempting to teach or cultivate are really hard to do. Like empathy and compassion and grit. Yeah. But I think in camp it can be done or progress can be made anyway.

Hmm. Well, before I get to my last question, where can everybody find out more about you and about wayfinding?

Yeah, the, the best place to go is our website, which is wayfinding academy.org. We have all of the social media stuff as well. We have chosen not to do things like Snapchat. But we are on Facebook and LinkedIn and Twitter and Instagram. And we also have, this is kind of new or at least new in terms of us populating it with regular content. We have a YouTube channel where once every few weeks I sit down with somebody from the wayfinding community and we talk about some kind of current events, issues that's going on that relates to higher education. Mmm. If they want to just, I don't know that people need to hear from me all the time necessarily, but if that's what they're seeking, then that's a place to go.

Awesome. Well, my last question is how can we push the world to evolve?

I mean, I think having conversations with the ones that you have, which are, I think your mission and our mission are really similar in terms of helping people really be intentional and purpose driven in the work that they do. And really think about why. Mmm. I think that's probably the biggest thing we can do is constantly ask why and keep asking why. We use some an activity around here frequently called the five why's to get at the depths of why people choose to do what they do or why they believe what they believe or why they care about what they care about. And I think with an open, loving curiosity, constantly asking why and engaging in that conversation is probably one of our best ways to evolve.

Hmm. Well, I love that answer and I appreciate Michelle you engaging in this conversation today and sharing everything that you had about wayfinding.

Thank you very much and I appreciate the opportunity.

About The Host

Brandon Stover

Brandon is an entrepreneur, certified professional coach, and podcast host. His aim is to evolve the individual through education, entertainment, and philosophy so together we can ask the world's biggest questions, build businesses to solve them, & live fulfilling lives in the process.

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