In order to make campus a better place for local students, it is best to involve these students. The Kinap Mentorship Program at the University of Maine Machias empowers local students to engage with their culture on campus and use what they have learned to strengthen the local tribal community.

Since about 2013, UMaine Machias has seen a slight decline in the number of Native American students enrolled, said Darren Ranco, chair of Native American Programs, associate professor of anthropology and coordinator of Native American research at the University of Maine. While UMaine’s Orono campus has facilities like the Wabanaki Center and programs like the Wabanaki Youth in Science (WaYS) program, which incorporates Indigenous science and learning methods into classes such as forestry and engineering, Ranco recognized that on the campus of UMaine did not give much indigenous presence to Machias, despite its proximity to Washington County tribal communities.

“We started by brainstorming how we could address both situations — more student attraction and retention programs and finding ways to support local students in UMaine Machias,” Ranco said.

With this in mind, Ranco and his colleagues from the University of Maine Wabanaki Center and the WaYS program developed the Kinap Mentoring Program for Wabanaki students at the University of Maine at Machias. Kinap (pronounced gee-nap) loosely translates to “future leaders.”

The mentors, a group called the Kinapiyik (plural for kinap, pronounced gee-nah-pee-yig), are responsible for attending programs on and off campus that aim to bring together Wabanaki cultural values ​​and indigenous ways of learning with Western education .

“The design is based on what we learned through the WaYS program, with a few caveats,” Ranco said. “It uses the notion of binocular vision, indigenous science and western science coming together in educational spaces.”

In Spring 2021, UMaine hired Jennifer Isherwood as Assistant Coordinator for Native American Student Outreach and Development at UMaine Machias to launch the program and create an on-campus focal point for Native American students.

“I think it’s innovative in a place that doesn’t have a lot of programs that specifically cater to the well-being of Indigenous students,” Isherwood said. “There is no full-time Indigenous faculty at UMaine Machias, so having a representative dedicated solely to supporting Indigenous students is brand new.”

In addition to helping local students connect with resources, including tuition waivers, Isherwood recruited students into the Kinap Mentorship Program, which launched in Fall 2021. She said the recruitment process is more challenging than it might seem. Not all Native students identify themselves when applying to UMaine, so Isherwood worked with members of the tribal community to reach out to the students, in addition to handing out flyers and publicizing them in more traditional ways.

“Gaining that trust and that relationship takes time; You can’t expect this to happen overnight,” Isherwood said.

The first cohort of the Kinap mentorship program had four students, which Ranco says is impressive given the size of UMaine Machias and the large number of native students on campus. One of the flagship members, Xander LaComb, a freshman fine arts student from Norway, Maine, said the idea of ​​promoting Aboriginal culture on campus drew him to the program.

“I didn’t grow up in an area with a lot of native culture,” LaComb said. “The idea of ​​being able to establish this here really appealed to me.”

The Kinap mentors have already achieved a lot in the first year with his small but excellent cohort. Isherwood organized a variety of activities, including social gatherings, presentations by Indigenous leaders, and roundtables with students and faculty involved in projects that positively impact tribal communities across the state.

Last semester, Isherwood organized a field trip to local petroglyphs, where the Kinapiyak were encouraged to invite local high schoolers from the community. She also started a speaking series called Wabanaki Voices, which offers members and allies of the Wabanaki community an opportunity to speak and engage with the UMaine Machias community. As part of the series, she hosted a conversation with Jennifer Pictou, Founder and Chief Instructor of Dawnland Martial Arts, who spoke about how the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women led to the creation of a self-defense program called Kinapiskw’k in international Wabanaki communities.

“She was really incredible,” said LaComb. “She was willing to be vulnerable with her experiences as an indigenous woman. It was just a really powerful experience.”

The Kinapiyak also established a Native American student lounge where they had the opportunity to design the space and choose the decoration. LaComb said he was even able to use his fine art skills to make signs for the space.

Although the space is open to anyone on campus willing to respect its importance, many Kinap Mentorship Program events will take place in the new lounge. For example, the program hosted a “lunch and learn” in the student lounge with suicide prevention representatives from Wabanaki Health and Wellness about what it means to be a Kcitpahsuwet, a guiding light, in tribal communities. With the hosts, the students braided sweet grass, discussed social and emotional support issues, and discussed what other programs they would like to have.

Supporting students in this way is an important part of the program in general. Kinapiyik has to meet with a representative from the Wabanaki Center for life coaching sessions every two weeks.

The Kinap Mentorship Program also comes with a financial incentive. In exchange for their participation in the programs, students receive a stipend of $1,500 per year.

“I think there are so many things competing for student time,” Ranco said. “Some of them have very complicated roles in their families and things that they spend time on and maybe don’t make money on that are given a lower priority.”

The long-term goal of the Kinap Mentorship Program is to develop a peer group of Native American mentors for younger Native American students throughout the academic year. Ranco said they hope to expand the program to the Orono campus this fall.

“I’m so happy with how things have gone so far,” said Ranco. “Even a student or two from these communities that makes a difference is certainly important.”

Isherwood said next year she hopes to recruit students into the program earlier in the year and to engage more with younger students in the community. LaComb also hopes to spend more time in the native community off campus.

“Because of COVID, there hasn’t been a huge opportunity yet, which is understandable, but I’m hoping as soon as we move away from those we can get into after-school programs and things like that,” LaComb said.

Still, LaComb said he will be “100%” participating in the Kinap Mentorship Program for years to come.

“The program was a great help for me as a freshman to find my place on campus, and it was also a great help for me to connect with my culture as a local student,” said LaComb. “I think if I keep going, it will do the same for a lot of other people.”

Contact: Sam Schipani,