PORTLAND, Or. — Tucked in a neighborhood just outside of Portland’s downtown, you’ll find Wayfinding Academy. The private community college is an alternative school where students are challenged to develop who they are as they develop future career plans.
The two-year program ends with an Associate Degree, but as the name of this small college will tell you, the lessons in this classroom meet more than common education standards.
“It’s more tools for life than it is just academics,” said student Keyanna Kahey.
Kahey is about to graduate and find a job in creative arts: a dream that almost didn’t happen.
“It was hard because I wanted to do the college thing, but I didn't have the money for it,” she said.
Thankfully, she heard about the unique scholarship at Wayfinding Academy. All Black and Indigenous students in Oregon can get their degree for free.
“When I got the text that I got the scholarship, I cried because it was one thing that was really getting on my mind,” said Kahey. “I've always financially struggled in my life.”
The scholarship covers all tuition, letting Kahey focus on her studies and future career.
“It made me feel like I was wanted; like I was supposed to be here,” she said.
This sense of belonging is something she hadn’t felt in a while.
“It's a really, really big impact on students, especially students of color because you live in a school system that's really oppressive of your kind, and then you come to a school that's like, ‘Your kind is welcome and we want you here,’” Kahey said.
The college’s founder and president, Michelle Jones, said this investment in students of color is a way to level the playing field.
“Higher education is broken and that the way we do it in this country is not equitable and has a lot of flaws, and we have to start somewhere with correcting those flaws,” said Jones.
Erica Compere puts the school’s philosophy of equality into action through her classes. One of the reasons she chose to work at Wayfinding Academy was to support students in the free tuition program.
“What I heard when I saw these actions was reparations,” said Compere. “It's the right thing to do. We don't need to talk about it. We don't need to figure out whether or not it's a good or right thing. Yes, it is. Let's do it. Period."
The staff hopes other colleges and universities will follow their lead and use this program as a model to give students of color across the country the same opportunity.
“We're a very small college and we have a very small operating budget, and we are doing it anyway,” said Jones. “So, if we can do this, then certainly other colleges that have much larger budgets and endowments and major donors and big scholarship funds, then they could certainly do it, too. There's no reason why not."
“It’s changing lives,” said Kahey. “It shows that we care for Black people in our community and we want them to have an education, and education was something that Black people didn't get for such a long time."
For students like Kahey, this encouragement is helping her overcome personal hurdles along with academic challenges.
“I do have bipolar disorder,” said Kahey. “I've had some struggles, some mountains that I've had to climb over with this illness, but I’ve climbed over them, and I'm still climbing. So, you know, I take it one day at a time, like everything else.”
One class at a time, this school is helping her learn just how unlimited her potential can be.
“When I wake up to go to class every day, I wake up knowing that I’m going to learn something. It gives me a purpose,” Kahey said.
Kahey plans to graduate this year, and she is hopeful she will find a job in her desired field with the knowledge and tools she’s gotten from Wayfinding Academy. It's a priceless gift she is thankful she doesn’t have to go into debt for.