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Belonging at O’Dowd: Project Wayfinder

Everyone wants to belong. Everyone wants to feel like they have a place within their community. Especially high school students.

“At O’Dowd, we’re always thinking about how to best support the social-emotional wellbeing of our kids,” says Associate Principal, Dr. Tanya Susoev. “Building a community where everyone feels they belong is paramount to our culture, and paramount to our Charism of community in diversity. When students feel that they belong, they can take risks, be brave, and rise to their highest selves. That’s how the best learning happens!”

To help build a culture of belonging, O’Dowd has piloted a new social-emotional learning curriculum called Wayfinder. Designed at the Stanford Institute of Design, Wayfinder reimagines adolescent education to develop a student’s sense of meaning, purpose and belonging. Through a series of modules, students focus on building strong peer relationships, being curious and present in the moment, and making an impact that matters to them.

“Belonging is foundational to our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion work,” notes President J.D. Childs. “At O’Dowd, we want to create conditions where all students flourish. Attending to social-emotional connections is essential for making our learning environment equitable.”

“It was amazing to watch the way students made connections and opened up to each other,” reports Isabel Rodriguez-Vega, Living Lab Sustainability Programs Manager, who facilitated Wayfinder sessions with 9th Graders last spring. “The modules helped our students shine in ways that are not just academic.”

This August, in anticipation of further expanding the Wayfinder curriculum to our 9th and 10th grades, O’Dowd faculty and staff came together for an in-depth professional development workshop to experience the Wayfinder curriculum first-hand. “We want to give teachers and staff an opportunity to try these exercises with each other,” explains Dr. Susoev. “Not only does it sharpen our skills to guide students through the program, but it also builds that critical foundation of belonging among our adult community, too.”

44 faculty and staff have signed up as Wayfinder advisors. They will lead small groups of 9th and 10th graders through four intimate advisory sessions each semester, supporting students to build and deepen relationships beyond the classroom. In addition, every teacher at O’Dowd has access to the Wayfinder curriculum and can augment their lessons with relevant social-emotional content to help make the classroom experience even more robust, interactive, and community-oriented.

“I am grateful to have this new, rich point of connection with students,” says math teacher Chi Chi Chang. “It’s so rewarding to build relationships beyond our subject expertise with our students. It shows them that we care about their whole selves.”


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