Exchange Matters / November 16, 2021

Virtual Exchange and Mental Resilience

By Angela Zheng, Public Diplomacy & Exchanges Intern, Global Ties U.S. 

The MENA-USA Empowering Resilient Girls Exchange (MERGE) brings together young women in the United States and the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) in a supportive virtual space to learn about mental health. MERGE equips young women to develop practical approaches to mental health advocacy by providing participants with resources and strategies to improve their mental resilience. 

Launched in collaboration with the Stevens Initiative and Global Ties Network partners in the United States and MENA region, MERGE is a series of eight-week virtual exchanges taking place during the 2021 – 2022 academic year. The curriculum covers a range of stress-relief and coping techniques that include journaling, exercise, meditation, positive thoughts and affirmations, and nutrition.  

During the exchange, participants (ages 15-19) work in small groups with a facilitator (ages 22-29) to understand the science behind each resilience strategy and why building these skills in themselves and their communities is beneficial. Participants engage with one another using various asynchronous and synchronous software, including Zoom, Padlet, Google Drive, and WhatsApp, and participate in a variety of cultural exchange activities. At the end of the exchange, participants create a multimedia project that demonstrates their knowledge of mental wellness through a public-facing website. 

The first program cohort ran from August – October 2021 and included approximately 200 participants from countries including Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestinian Territories, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and the United States. 

At the end of the eight-week exchange, participants reported increased awareness of mental resilience strategies and intercultural knowledge. Several MENA participants highlighted journaling as a strategy for facing uncomfortable situations. “I was a bit stressed before the start of the new school year because I didn’t know anybody,” Takwa from Tunisia explained. “I was scared, overwhelmed and anxious. By journaling every day, I get all the negativity off my mind.” 

The MERGE program also served to improve critical thinking skills regarding media portrayals of stereotypes and other assumptions based on countries of origin and cultural backgrounds. Samantha, a U.S. participant, reflected on the role of mental health in intense work cultures. “Oftentimes in America, in the workforce, productivity is prioritized over other aspects of life. We take that to extremes and workers can burn out easily. Work is very important but it is also super important to avoid burnout by taking care of boundaries with work and creating achievable goals.” 

According to post-program surveys, around 80% of the MENA region participants said they agree or strongly agree that they understand some U.S. cultural traditions and common issues facing young people in the United States after the program. Similarly, more than 50% of the U.S. participants stated that they now understand some common issues facing young people in the Middle East and North Africa.  

Participants also expressed more willingness to consider the perspectives of people with different backgrounds from themselves. More than 80% of the respondents emphasized the importance of active listening, detailed explanations, and the usage of clear examples when communicating with speakers of a different native language. 

Finally, participants reported a marked increase in their cross-cultural communication skills. Ninety-five percent of survey respondents said they felt far more confident in their ability to adapt and work productively in multicultural workspaces thanks to participating in the virtual exchange–a 46% increase during the eight-week project.  

International exchange programs like MERGE provide a critical path for building international communication, leadership skills, and developing mental health and resilience strategies across intercultural communities. We are currently recruiting participants (ages 15-19) and facilitators (ages 22-29) for the second MERGE cohort. More information is available here.