The Niijkewehn Mentoring Program at Central Michigan University is designed to increase the number of Native Americans graduating from high school and going on to college and earning a degree. And it is definitely moving students along that path.
Niijkewehn — interpreted as "the one that I walk on my path with" — is the only program in the nation in which Native American college students mentor Native American youth through a variety of cultural, educational and recreational activities.
"Research indicates Native Americans have the lowest high school and college graduation rates of any ethnic or racial group nationally," said David Kinney, CMU sociology professor and program founder.
Niijkewehn, a partnership between CMU and the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, pairs Central students with fifth-through-eighth grade Saginaw Chippewa Indian students. It was piloted in 2002, however lack of funding placed the program on hiatus until it was revitalized in the spring of 2013.
As a prevention program, Niijkewehn aims to increase children's resilience to becoming involved in problem behaviors such as drug and alcohol use and unprotected sex. As an intervention program, it is designed to promote the growth of Native American students' academic and cultural identities.
Since its revival, the program has grown from 10 children in one school to 55 children in five schools across central Michigan. Kinney and his team are tracking data, and it is showing significant impact.
"Both the college students and children are developing and sustaining stronger academic and cultural identities," Kinney said. "They are becoming more committed to each other, to their culture and to their current and future education."
The percentage of mentees reporting they like school a lot increased from 23 percent to 41 percent after. Those reporting they look forward to going to school a lot and those who reported they intended to go to college increased by 10 percent from before the program to after.
Of the 35 college student mentors, 46 percent increased their GPA. Those who mentored during their senior year all graduated, and all others continued in college the next academic year.
"Creating a strong sense of future in middle and high school students is critical to them becoming resilient and less likely to engage in unhealthy behavior," Kinney said. "The children also are learning their culture is cool, and that it is cool to do well in school. These new understandings are crucial because the vast majority of them would be first-generation college students."
Inspiration and application
While a student at CMU, Davis Timmer, a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, had the opportunity to change the lives of young Native Americans as a Niijkewehn mentor. Now, as an employee of the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians, he is using that experience to impact even more Native American youth.
Timmer, the community organizer for the tribe's Spring Prevention Project, spends his days working to reduce marijuana use and underage drinking in Native American youth in Emmet and Cheboygan counties. The federally-funded project began as an internship, and Timmer was hired full time when he graduated from CMU in May 2015.
"Seeing someone grow and become more confident is an amazing thing," Timmer said. "Even if I'm only making minor changes, it is an energizing feeling giving back to the community and pushing students to reach their goals."
Timmer was inspired as a Niijkewehn mentor to continue to work with Native American youth.
"The Niijkewehn program gave me the underlying framework of building trust and rapport with my mentees," Timmer said.
"Instead of responding to possible issues in children after something happens, and always being on the cycle of reaction, these programs create a way to move upstream, ahead of the problem. Mentoring programs strengthen students, families, schools and communities."
Continued growth and progress
Carolyn Dunn, CMU associate vice president for institutional diversity, has not only engaged as an administrator, she has experienced it as a parent.
"As an administrator I see the value of cultural mentoring for native youth. As a parent, I've seen tremendous personal, cultural and academic growth," Dunn said. "This program does for native children exactly what we have set our goals to accomplish...laying the groundwork for success rooted in their native identities."
The most recent Niijkewehn development is the addition of junior mentors, enabling high schoolers who were in the program in middle school — as well as additional Native American high school students — to help mentor younger children.
Kinney also sees the program growing to at least 100 Saginaw Chippewa children and 100 CMU mentors in Mount Pleasant in the next few years. He also plans to share the program with other tribes and colleges in Michigan and beyond to reach more Native American students.
The program also has implications for educational policies designed to increase high school and graduation rates among other student groups who experience low graduation rates.