How the Island Institute’s Fellowship Program Became a Maine Coast Fixture

At the program’s quarter-century mark, we look back at fellows’ local impacts and lasting connections to host communities.

Island Institute Fellow Alumnus Jes Stevenson on a lobsterboat with two lobstermen
Photo courtesy of the Island Institute
By Joel Crabtree
From our June 2024 issue

In 1999, fresh out of college, two women signed up to be dropped into small island communities as part of the Rockland-based nonprofit Island Institute’s fellowship program. Except that there was no fellowship program, at least not really. The institute’s mission, since its founding 16 years earlier, had been to support the economic and social well-being of coastal towns, but it had never tried this before. The inaugural fellows were Jes Stevens and Susan Olcott. Stevens was assigned to Monhegan, 10 miles offshore, Olcott to Chebeague, tucked into Casco Bay. Their job was to work with local fishermen to do sea sampling, to advance a scientific understanding of lobster populations that could inform fisheries policy. During their time on the islands, though, the two fellows found themselves engaging with a lot more than just work. They formed friendships, helped out in the local schools, and attended social functions. They became part of the community.

Their experiences that first year served as proof of concept, and the program added seven new fellows across five more locations the following year (the Island Institute works not just with people on Maine’s 15 unbridged islands that have year-round populations but also with inshore coastal populations). Early efforts ranged from bolstering library services to assisting with land-use planning to organizing marine sciences and stewardship projects. What had developed was a sort of AmeriCorps program, but with a narrower geographic focus. 

Scenes of fellows over the years, at work in — and becoming a part of — their host communities. Photos courtesy of Island Institute

“We don’t have enough people to do some of the jobs that need to be done or some of the important things that need to be done,” says Kendra Chubbuck, an Isle au Haut resident who has served as a supervisor to fellows on the island and who wears many other hats too: gift-shop owner, town clerk, notary public, dedimus justice. “The fellows come with a lot of the skills that islanders don’t have or with the time that can’t otherwise be put into some of these projects.” Often, fellows learn as they go — English majors, say, generally aren’t practiced in grant writing — but they have institutional support to lean on, and they have an eagerness to make an impact. 

Prospective host sites apply to the Island Institute for a fellow, outlining specific needs that could form the basis of a project (funding for fellowships comes from both the host site and the institute, with the latter providing the bulk of it). Then, candidates are matched with projects based on abilities and interests. An interview with host-site advisors and other community members follows in order to help ensure a good fit, since a fellowship lasts two years and islands can feel isolated, especially for someone fresh from the bustling environment of a college campus. “We’re stranded,” Chubbuck says. “Especially during storms, we have no way to get off. The boat’s not running.” 

The majority of fellows, having just wrapped up bachelor’s or graduate degrees, are coming from settings where they were around peers who shared similar backgrounds and worldviews, says Kate Tagai, director of the Island Institute’s Center for Sustainable Communities. Tagai has observed, though, that fellows often develop their strongest friendships with locals in their 70s or 80s. “It’s a really eye-opening, positive experience,” she says. “Community is more than just people who share the same ideals as you and are in the same life stages as you. Community can be a lot more diverse.”

Photos courtesy of Island Institute

Fellowships have come to be not just about meeting set goals but also about embracing the rhythms and nuances of life in coastal Maine — an evening’s potluck is as central to the experience as a day’s work. Fellows have tended to keep up ties with their host sites. Quite a few have chosen to live there. Jes Steven settled on Monhegan and married an islander — in fact, quite a few such marriages have resulted from fellowships — and now chairs the committee overseeing Monhegan’s one-room school. (Olcott, the other inaugural fellow, returned to the mainland but continued working in marine sciences and is currently operations director for the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association.) And just as fellows have embraced their hosts, the hosts have embraced their fellows. “They’re like my kids,” Chubbuck says. “They’re integral to the community, and the community accepts the fellows. Not just Isle-au-Haut. Every island.”

A SAMPLING OF FELLOWSHIP PROJECTS

Past

Aiding the nonprofit Peaks Island Land Preserve with land-management strategies for its more than 100 acres of the 720-acre island.

Implementing telemedicine to help older Chebeague residents who’d rather age in place than move to the mainland.

Tracking egg-bearing lobsters in Muscongus Bay, from a base in Friendship, using tagging and sonar.

Cataloging records for Long Island’s town government and adopting an electronic system to make them publicly available.

Providing in-home efficiency assessments to help lower energy usage on Monhegan, where power, provided by a massive diesel generator, is especially expensive.

Helping a new teacher — the only one at Matinicus’s one-room school — develop a curriculum for six students who ranged from ages five to 14.

Improving capacity and lending technical support at a telemedicine facility on Isle au Haut, where the nearest doctor is a long boat ride away.

Present

Integrating technology into classes for pre-K to 12th grade on Vinalhaven, plus leading a robotics club and other extra-curricular tech programming.

Digitizing archives, curating exhibits, and producing oral histories for the Swan’s Island Historical Society.

Working with Bar Harbor’s MDI Bio Lab and Maine Seacoast Mission to test drinking water on outer islands for heavy metals and plastics.

Conceiving of ways for Machias and other communities along the multi-use Down East Sunrise Trail to better utilize the trail as a recreational draw.

lobsterboat with islands in the background
Photo by Dave Waddell

Read more about the Island Institute, including an interview with founders Philip Conkling and Peter Ralston, the program’s notable alumni, and more in our June 2024 issue.

May 2024, Down East Magazine

Get all of our latest stories delivered straight to your mailbox every month. Subscribe to Down East magazine.