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As winter approaches for the Mohawk nation, a time-honored cultural tradition of gathering in the Longhouse to pay homage to their ancestors is also forthcoming. The time and date of the Midwinter Ceremony is not determined by the calendar, but rather by the alignment of the stars and constellations as they form in the night sky.

So too has been the path of Jaylen Kawenninon Francis-Herne ’23, whose academic trajectory is now aligning like the stars on a cold winter’s night as she launches a successful career steeped in public health education and community outreach.

“I come from a small community of poverty, addiction, mental health, all these issues,” she said. “I’ve had people very close to me suffer through these tragedies, and I wanted to learn how to help, and how to understand these people because they’re struggling.”

Francis-Herne, who is pursuing a degree in community health with a minor in human services, first enrolled at SUNY Potsdam in 2012. Fresh out of high school, she wasn’t prepared for the road ahead, and withdrew during her first year. Eight years later, she has returned to the College—this time with an unwavering determination and focus driven by the responsibilities of motherhood and a commitment to serve the Mohawk people within her community.

“I’ve had a great time. I love the campus and I love the instructors. I don’t have one bad thing to say about SUNY Potsdam. This is a great university.”

-Jaylen Francis-Herne ’23

“I don’t think I was ready back then. I wasn’t in the right mindset, so, I took some time off. I have a daughter—Tsiawentiio, which means ‘she brings the good day again’ in the Mohawk language—and she has been my motivation to finish. I’m more determined right now than I’ve ever been,” said Francis-Herne. “Spring 2020 was my first semester back at SUNY Potsdam and I was so excited. It was such a liberating feeling, to be like, ‘This is where I started, and now I’m going to finish.’ It has taken me quite a journey to get here, but I have never given up.”

Despite the detour, she always remained focused on addressing health disparities within indigenous populations. Having witnessed drug addiction on a local level, she took classes at North Country Community College focused on chemical dependency counseling, and after a few semesters there, she decided it was time to transfer back to SUNY Potsdam to complete her bachelor’s degree. “I love it here, I love the community, and I love the atmosphere. There’s such a diversity of students, so many people here from different backgrounds, with different views, and I thrive off of that,” she said.

Inspired by her older sister who attended Syracuse University before getting a master’s degree from Texas Christian University, she wanted to follow suit. The youngest of three sisters, Francis-Herne saw the importance of higher education as a way to supplement her extensive knowledge about the history and culture of the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) tribe. Now she’s combining her strong values and cultural heritage, with a passion for public health.

Under the guidance of professors like her advisor, Dr. Kelly Bonnar, she has been learning vital skills about everything from disease prevention to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Combining that with her minor in human services was the perfect marriage in her mind. Housed within the Department of Public Health and Human Performance, the two programs have created a lens through which to view her own life, and the lives of people in her community, so she can be a source of support in the years ahead.

With a calm demeanor and the wisdom of someone far beyond her years, Francis-Herne is now learning the benefits of helping others, by first harnessing the strength within. “It’s all about how you view yourself because that’s where it starts. If you view yourself in a good way, if you’re healthy, then how other people view you and treat you doesn’t really affect you as much. If you have this good foundation within yourself, that can contribute to your overall health, and that’s the way I see it in public health.”

One of the first classes she took when she returned to campus focused on the Me Too movement. Conversations ensued about sexual health, the definition of consent, mental health, sexual assault prevention and awareness, and sexual violence among women. The class resonated with her on a personal level. As a mother, and a strong woman in the Mohawk community, Francis-Herne wants to be a mentor for young people after dealing with her own trauma when she was a teenager. “I’ve gone through a lot of healing in my own life. I am who I am today because of everything that I’ve been through. And part of my reason I want to go into this field is because I went through a traumatic experience when I was 16. I was a young girl not knowing how to navigate this cruel world we live in,” Francis-Herne recalled.

Now she wants to be a mentor for teenagers in the same situation. She wants to create a safe space for youth to talk about sexual abuse and sexual assault and help remove the stigma surrounding rape culture and mental health. “No one teaches you how to let people treat you and your body. So, when I started my public health degree, that sparked a passion in me. I want to have these conversations with people, I want to create this safe space, and I want people to feel OK talking about these things because if we don’t, it’s going to have a detrimental effect on our people. It’s OK to ask for help. So many services are out there, we just need to let these people know about them.”

Like tracing stars in the sky to form the constellations, Francis-Herne is intersecting all of her life experiences and everything that she has learned at SUNY Potsdam, with her Mohawk values centered on respect and gratitude. “Being indigenous, we incorporate everything to the land, everything to Mother Earth. We respect her, we love her, and we never take things from her without asking. You have to respect and love yourself. You have to have those boundaries.”

When Francis-Herne graduates in the spring of 2023, she will be leaning on her degree at SUNY Potsdam to improve the lives of those around her, while honoring the values of the Mohawk people. “In my professional career, I will be very culturally based, because that’s who we are as a people,” she said. “I grew up going to the Longhouse, going to ceremonies, learning our ways. We have to keep these traditions going.”

Article and photos by Jason Hunter