On Courage: A Reflection About the Wayfinding Mission


What makes Wayfinding such a unique educational experience?

Our longtime friend, Luminary, and current Board Chair, Charlie Gilkey explains: 

A little over a decade ago, I was teaching Applied Ethics at the University of Nebraska Lincoln. Of all the philosophical subjects I could teach, it was the one that I found the most satisfying because I felt that the subject and the way I went about it would actually help students live richer lives. As fun as it is to talk about whether or not chairs exist and whether God exists in the same way, those conversations rarely led to people engaging with the world differently.

What was hollow about the experience, though, was that I knew that developing students’ character and cultivating them to engage in the real world wasn’t a priority for the strong majority of my academic colleagues. Sure, it may have been the University’s mission, but an examination of what was actually taught and prioritized showed something far different: what mattered most was academic excellence. Anything else was extracurricular and the overworked faculty and staff prioritized accordingly. This wasn’t an isolated issue with the University of Nebraska, either. My wife, Angela -- who also taught sociology there -- and I knew that almost anywhere else we went would have the same stance.

I left academia for many reasons, but high on the list was the belief that higher education wasn’t preparing students for the world that awaited them. Knowledge is insufficient to solve today’s pressing problems; we’ll need courageous, conscientious people who are able to roll up their sleeves and engage in the issues that their parents and grandparents punted to them. They’ll need to address climate change, new political and economic realities, and changes in what it means to be human as virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and technological enhancement become mainstream.

Courage and conscientiousness is baked right into our foundations at the Wayfinding Academy, and not just in words. We are in the process of building a startup college from scratch, fully aware that it may not work. Every Boardmember and Luminary, past and present, has put their reputation, time, and money on the line to shape and guide the Wayfinding Academy to make unconventional and sometimes hard choices that create the conditions for students to thrive. The Wayfinding staff, almost all of whom were accomplished forces of nature before joining the team, have committed years of their lives to figuring out how to actualize our values and lean into the uncertainty that comes with serving students in a new way.

But, of everyone involved with the Wayfinding Academy, it’s our students who show the most courage and conscientiousness. They’ve chosen to take the road less traveled that is the Wayfinding Academy and have done so before the Academy could prove its value. They chose to live in the house as it was being built and to pick up hammers and books with equal fervor. They’ve supported their classmates while they’ve gone through a swirl of existential crises that are part and parcel of the self-discovery process and have been vulnerable enough to reach out when they were going through their own. They’ve dared to jump into unconventional internships, Learn and Explore trips, community service initiatives, and political discussions, all of which push the students out of their zones of comfort and familiarity.

A decade ago, I was resigned to the fact that preparing students to thrive was an extracurricular activity. Today, the Wayfinding Academy community at large -- and especially our students -- model living a life on purpose and re-inspire me to do the same.