Written by Megan Corey, ‘21
How can I know myself better? What does society expect of me? What moves me? High schoolers everywhere find themselves struggling with these questions. Many students are unsure of their interests, how they fit into the world, and their values. Dr. Bill Damon, Director of the Stanford Center for Adolescence, found that “the biggest problem growing up today is not actually stress; it’s meaninglessness.”
Project Wayfinder aims to lessen this anxiety in the future by helping students answer these questions. Wayfinder is a new program founded at Stanford Design School that is now taught in around 64 different schools to over 4,000 students. Project Wayfinder is a program that narrows students’ interests and directs them to a path where they can solidify their values and discover their purpose. Its aim is to help students be happier, healthier, more engaged, and less stressed, which works hand-in-hand with Durham Academy’s goals for its students.
This is why this program was offered to Durham Academy Upper and Middle School students by Middle School math teacher, Mr. Fitzpatrick, in the fall of this year. A total of 11 students at DA have joined and have actively participated once every few weeks during their free periods. Mr. Fitzpatrick, who had attended Project Wayfinder’s four-day Summer Institute, guided students through various activities that helped them analyze their self-awareness, their world awareness and their aspirations for the future. “I found that through the activities, I was able to learn that I like working and being in communication with others,” said tenth-grader Nathaniel Turner. “This inspired me to combine what I am good at, engineering, and what I love, working with people, to hopefully become a civil engineer when I grow up.”
Many of the Wayfinder curriculum requires a partner to share results with. “I talked to people I wouldn’t have talked to otherwise,” said tenth-grader Raguell Couch, a member of Project Wayfinder. “It was an organic environment where we could open up with each other without feeling judged. Normally in high school, you only really talk to your friends. Project Wayfinder opened up new opportunities to relate to each other.” These meetings not only taught individuals about themselves but also connected them with others.
Originally, Project Wayfinder was offered on a larger scale to the eighth grade as their new advisory curriculum. With positive feedback from the middle schoolers, Mr. Fitzpatrick turned his focus to older students. “High school for me felt like running a race and completing a big checklist instead of spending time really thinking and engaging with ideas and people on a deeper level,” he said. “And in many ways I think that has gotten worse — anxiety and depression are on the rise for high school students, and that can come from feeling a lack of control, meaning or purpose.”
Project Wayfinder helps meet these problems with their toolkit filled with insightful games and projects. Each page is an activity that focuses on a different aspect of the participant’s identity. “I really liked the activity where we had to cover our eyes and find something without knowing what we were looking for,” said Turner, recounting his favorite exercise. “Mr. Fitzpatrick just said that we would know it when we find it. But the key to winning was to ask for help. I didn’t know that because I didn’t allow myself to give up and ask. I learned a lot about myself from that experience.” Each activity tests students and then gives them the ability to reflect on what their outcome was and take something vital away from it.
“I think they’ve helped make me a more thoughtful, reflective, and generous person,” said Mr. Fitzpatrick, describing what he learned from his participation. “One of the quotes I’ve had on my classroom wall for a few years is from a poet named Mary Oliver. In her poem “Sometimes” she wrote,
I feel like Project Wayfinder has the potential to help people do more of all three of those things, while discovering more meaning and purpose in the process.”
As such a helpful tool in many people’s lives, Project Wayfinder’s presence at Durham Academy is growing. This summer, Durham Academy will host Project Wayfinder’s east coast Summer Institute and the program’s main instructor indicated there is the possibility of more sessions in the fall of the upcoming school year.
If this program sparks your interest, more information can be found here: https://www.projectwayfinder.com/.