Research indicates Native Americans have the lowest high school and college graduation rates, as well as the highest high school and college dropout rates of any cultural group.
These statistics spurred Central Michigan University sociology professor David Kinney to take action.
Kinney secured funding in 2001 to create a pilot mentoring program at CMU. The program pairs Native American college students enrolled at CMU with 5th through 8th grade Saginaw Chippewa Indian students. The CMU students serve as mentors for the youth and they interact through a variety of cultural, educational and recreational activities.
The program, called Niijkewehn, is interpreted by one Ojibwe elder as “the one I walk on my path with.”
Program mentor Davis Timmer, a senior from Muskegon and member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa, believes programs like this are important because they guarantee young people that there is someone who cares about them.
"We do not know the history or background of these students, and I don’t know the types of adversity these students may be facing at school or in the community," said Timmer. "Though during the time we have together, my colleagues and I are putting forth everything to raise the students' self-esteem and influence them how to reach their personal goals in life."
Although funding wasn’t available to continue the program in the early 2000s, the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe approached CMU in 2011 with interest in having it revived. It has since grown fivefold in size and is transforming numerous lives.
“I have seen this program inspire our Native American college students to become professional and cultural leaders,” said Kinney. “This gives them a vision of a future where they can give back to their tribes.”
The three goals of the program are to:
- address the historically low rates of high school graduation and college attendance among Native Americans;
- lower the current high rates of involvement in high-risk behaviors among Native Americans, such as substance use and abuse, teen pregnancy, and suicide; and,
- strengthen and sustain Native American children’s and college students’ cultural identities.
“This program benefits the mentees and the mentors,” said Kinney. “The adolescents are impacted by seeing examples of academic success first-hand. Mentors see they can make a difference in young people’s lives, ultimately motivating them to stay in college.”
Kinney’s long-term plan is for the program to have three layers. Once the middle school students get into high school, they will mentor younger members, and Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribal leaders will mentor the college students.
“It is important for institutions like CMU to give back to their communities and help address local needs,” said Kinney. “We hope to reach as many students as possible.”