Exchange Matters / August 3, 2023

MERGE Program Makes Mental Health a Priority for Teen Girls

By: Isabelle Kratz, Global Ties U.S. Exchanges Team Intern 

Editor’s Note: The MENA-USA Empowering Resilient Girls Exchange (MERGE) was an eight-week virtual exchange for young women in the United States, Middle East, and North Africa. Programming focused on mental health and resiliency-building strategies, and encompassed four cohorts, the last of which ended this April. MERGE was implemented in collaboration with the Stevens Initiative and Global Ties Network. Special thanks to the Charleston Council for International Visitors, Global Ties Akron, Global Ties Sacramento, International Center of the Capital Region, Reclaim Childhood (based in Jordan), San Diego Diplomacy Council, TIBU Maroc (based in Morocco), World Affairs Council Dallas/Fort Worth, World Affairs Council of New Hampshire, WorldChicago, and WorldOrlando for helping to recruit participants.  

Mental health is a critical component of self-care and overall wellness. The last decade has seen huge strides in global attention to mental health, especially as the global pandemic forced the world to stop and reevaluate itself and its relationship with healthcare. As people coped with the stresses brought on by COVID-19, the circumstances prompted broader conversations on wellness. All this change, combined with the fact that girls growing up in underserved communities already face increased risk of mental illness, depression, anxiety, and self-esteem—see findings from a 2012 study—highlighted the necessity for exchange programs like the MENA-USA Empowering Resilient Girls Exchange (MERGE) 

MERGE was an eight-week virtual exchange program on mental health and resiliency for young women ages 15 to 19 from the Middle East and Northern Africa (MENA), and the United States. Over the course of two years and four cohorts, MERGE engaged more than 600 participants, with 410 participants coming from 10 MENA nations and 197 participants coming from 24 U.S. states, as well as Washington, DC. For almost 60 percent of MERGE participants, this was their first opportunity to take part in an international exchange program.  

Cohorts were split into 10 classrooms, each led by a facilitator: young women ages 22 to 29. Following group introductions, exchange participants discussed different topics including mental health terminology; stress relief and coping strategies such as journaling, exercise, and mediation; role models; the science behind positive thinking; and building support networks and self-confidence. During the final weeks of MERGE, the participants divided into groups to create mental resilience strategies to reflect on what they learned and share this knowledge of mental health and resilience building with their communities.

Slide on meditation and mindfulness from her MERGE Day event. Image provided by MERGE alumna Mayra Khaled.

One of the highlights for each cohort were the two synchronous sessions, where all 10 classrooms gathered together to listen to guest speakers. Erin Pellegrino, Vice President of Community Impact Women’s Sports Foundation, spoke about the influence of sports in building self-confidence and mental resilience. Erin told Cohort II, “I felt that sports had taught me as a young person…resilience and leadership, confidence and sticking with it. What I started to learn as I moved into the professional space was that those things still applied.” Laila Mokhiber, Director of Communications at UNRWA USA, spoke to MERGE participants about her career trajectory, work, and finding a work-life balance. In her session with Cohort IV, she reassured the participants that “there is no wrong or right way [to figure out your career], I am still discovering myself at age 36.” These synchronous sessions introduced MERGE participants to role models leading the way in their respective organizations and provided an opportunity for speakers and attendees to share their experiences with mental health and resilience in their personal and professional lives. 

The fourth and final MERGE cohort wrapped this past spring. Participants from this cohort reflected on the intercultural connections they built during the program and discussed ways to form deeper friendships in their final project, advising others to, “increase your empathy and engage [friends] in open, honest dialogue.”  

Post program surveys from all four cohorts illustrate that participants have gained an increased consideration for others’ perspectives. After participating in MERGE, 95 percent of participants agreed with the statement, “I try to understand people better by imagining how a situation looks to them.” Similarly, more than 91 percent of participants agreed with the statement, “When talking to people who are different from me, I try to see things from their point of view.” This emphasis on empathy was threaded throughout MERGE’s programming and was at the heart of the international exchange program. It is evident that the participants were receptive to this theme, considering its prevalence in their final projects. Furthermore, 95 percent of the alumna asserted an increased confidence in working productively with students from different countries and / or backgrounds than their own, and that they would recommend MERGE to other students.  

Beyond teaching young women about mental health and resilience alone, the MERGE program has also facilitated cultural exchange, built community, and supported the development of more empathetic individuals. Some MERGE alumnae – both participants and facilitators – are also continuing to build upon their exchange experiences. Mayra Khaled, for example, hosted a “MERGE Day” at her school to share the lessons from this exchange with their local community. As Mayra explained, “It was incredibly motivating to see and learn about the advantages of a healthy lifestyle for women, especially teenagers, during the eight-week program, and I felt compelled to share this information with my peers, particularly since we are female Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) students.” Through her event, Mayra engaged her peers in conversations on mental wellbeing and self-care and encouraged attendees to continue these conversations by forming a social group. You can read her story HERE.  

MERGE has also been beneficial to program facilitators. Stephanie Stan, who served as a facilitator for all four cohorts, shared how she joined the MERGE program to both support young women and gain skills as she pursues a career in global health. As Stephanie explained, “I enjoyed seeing how MERGE positively impacted participants as they shared their experiences, and their eagerness to connect with peers around the world during and after the cultural exchange.Stephanie is pursuing a global health policy and governance career, with specific focus on the intersection of public diplomacy and cross-border collaboration to improve health outcomes globally. You can learn more about Stephanie HERE. 

We wish the best for the MERGE alumni and facilitators, and hope they continue to share the skills they have learned on mental resilience and international exchange with their communities.