A private, alternative college in Portland’s St. Johns neighborhood, known for its focus on social justice and community activism, is planning to temporarily shut down its academic programming, after offering classes out of a house in North Portland for about seven years.
School leaders say they will be taking a yearlong “organizational rest” starting in August to figure out its next steps in an effort to refocus its mission.
Wayfinding College, formerly known as Wayfinding Academy, offers one degree program — a two-year associate’s in “self and society.” That program will be on hold for the upcoming academic year.
Wayfinding founder and president Michelle Jones says the temporary closure of the program has nothing to do with the college’s finances.
The school is small, with only about a dozen students currently enrolled, Jones said, and it has always operated on “shoestring budgets.” But, Jones said, Wayfinding has gotten more grants this past year than any previous year — many of those grants going to support the college’s Free Tuition Initiative, a full scholarship for Black and Native American students.
“We’re kind of in a fine financial position, but we just want to be really intentional and set the organization up for being able to be sustainable for the future,” Jones said.
Wayfinding’s degree program is currently focused on having students hone in on who they are and what they’re passionate about and then figuring out how to apply their skills and interests to making an impact on real world problems.
“So, who are you and how are you going to be of service to the world?” Jones said. “One of the things that’s happened over the years is that that being of service to the world piece has fallen by the wayside.”
Jones said the sense of drifting away from that original mission is what’s prompting the rest period.
“Maybe the biggest thing that we would want to address is how do we return to that original piece of our mission and vision that we were doing a little bit better at the beginning,” she said. “But now the world is so different and things are more urgent now than they were eight years ago.”
In a letter addressed to current Wayfinding students and families, school staff wrote that the ongoing pandemic, reckonings with racial justice, climate change and “intense cultural polarization” are just some of the changes that have taken place in the course of the college’s seven years of existence.
“What we’ve been noticing over the last give-or-take a year is that especially young adults are having a really hard time,” Jones said. “That’s happening to us as well, and our staff and our faculty are really exhausted.”
Jones said the college spent this past fall doing retreats and bringing in consultants to realign its mission, “but we found that given everybody’s level of exhaustion, we weren’t able to start implementing the changes while operating.”
During the yearlong pause, Wayfinding leadership will be focusing on four possible options for the college: resuming operations as a college with improvements to its programming; continuing to focus on education, but not as a college, by offering courses and events to adults of all ages; finding another organization to merge with or to take over operations; or completely closing.
Jones said if the college continues to operate, some of the changes it makes could just be simple improvements to its existing degree program. It could also decide to move forward with a different degree or certificate program.
Wayfinding’s rest period will begin this August.
Jones said students who are currently enrolled at the school will have opportunities to get their degree, regardless of the program pause, by doing independent studies.
She said college staff are working with students one-on-one to create individual plans for them. The college is also helping students who are interested in transferring to other schools.
Currently, Wayfinding does not have transfer agreements with any colleges or universities within Oregon. Some of the schools it does have transfer agreements with include Evergreen State College in Washington and Goddard College in Vermont.
Jones noted that not every student is interested in getting their degree.
“They come because of the community and the learning opportunity and the other stuff,” she said. “For many of them, it’s not really about the degree.”
Not all of the college’s programming will stop in the yearlong rest period. What Wayfinding offers to the wider community, that people don’t have to be enrolled students to take part in, will still operate, such as Wayfinding’s eight-week virtual program and its travel programs.
“I’m excited about what might happen next,” Jones said. “It’s kind of a nice opportunity to just really reflect deeply and intentionally and have the opportunity to say, ‘OK, I’ve learned a lot for seven years, now what?’”