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U.S. Sen. Chris Coons met with students participating in the Middle Eastern Partnership Initiative.
U.S. Sen. Chris Coons met with students participating in the Middle Eastern Partnership Initiative.

Middle Eastern Partnership Initiative

Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson and courtesy of the Food Bank of Delaware

Middle Eastern students gathered for a leadership development program that is celebrating 20 years at UD

On a sultry July afternoon, the historic buildings at the University of Delaware’s Old College appeared somnolent as they basked in the sun. But inside Recitation Hall, Yasmine Zeineddine was the epitome of positive energy, her dark curls bouncing as she spoke animatedly about establishing youth development programs in her home country of Lebanon.   

Zeineddine and 14 other student leaders were participating in the Middle Eastern Partnership Initiative-Student Leaders Program (MEPI-SLP), which UD has hosted for the last 20 years. The U.S. State Department sponsors the program, which is designed to help Middle Eastern young people build leadership and problem-solving skills through academic, experiential and community service activities. The students arrived at UD’s Newark campus July 1, after an inaugural session in Washington, D.C. with other MEPI scholars who were placed at Georgetown University, Montana State University and Portland State University. The students returned home July 24.    

At Recitation Hall, the students had gathered for a workshop on how to effectively communicate with government officials. Other sessions covered civic engagement strategies, project management, budgeting, conflict resolution, navigating climate change, and more. The students also had the opportunity to meet with local and national leaders, including U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Rashmi Rangan, executive director of the Delaware Financial Literacy Institute.

They toured the United Nations in New York City; visited the Constitution Center in Philadelphia and strolled the boardwalk in Rehoboth Beach. They sorted and packed canned goods at the Food Bank of Delaware’s Newark site and learned about indigenous culture and storytelling from Nanticoke tribal elders at the Nanticoke Indian Museum in Millsboro.

“It’s been a really positive and welcoming experience,” said Zeineddine, 22, who is studying for a master’s in public health. “We have been exposed to amazing experts in different fields these past few weeks.”

Students from the Middle East volunteered at the Food Bank of Delaware during their time on campus.
Students from the Middle East volunteered at the Food Bank of Delaware during their time on campus.

During their time at UD, each student leader developed a community engagement plan that identified an issue in their country and strategies for how they can implement positive change. Zeineddine already has helped to form a nonprofit organization that teaches impoverished young Lebanese in rural areas how to get a community project off the ground from initial proposal writing to implementation and assessment. Her community engagement plan refines and improves her nonprofit’s approach to youth capacity building.   

She said the connections she made with other MEPI students have been invaluable.

“Here at MEPI, it has been beautiful to get to meet people from different Arab cultures and network and learn from them,” said Zeineddine. “It has been very important for me to see that young people in neighboring countries are following the same journey that I am.” 

Dan Bottomley is the program director of MEPI at UD. 

“MEPI was launched by the State Department in 2002 to build connections between the United States and U.S. citizens and peoples and governments throughout the Middle East,” Bottomley said. “While MEPI has evolved over time, forming cross-cultural friendships with the goal of ongoing partnerships has been one of the backbones of this student leader program since the very beginning. It’s all about seeking practical solutions to real problems through cross-cultural learning, just like Yasmine and the other participants are working to do.”

Students sorted food and packed boxes at the Food Bank of Delaware.
Students sorted food and packed boxes at the Food Bank of Delaware.

Tracey Holden, a UD associate professor of communication, is the program’s academic director.

“These students are already engaged and working on challenges in their communities,” Holden said. “We give them the opportunity to connect globally in a way that is unique to UD. Where else can they meet a U.S. senator and ask him questions and then go volunteer with kids in an inner-city camp, all in the same day.” 

The time the students spent in the U.S. is the most intensive component of the Middle Eastern Partnership Initiative Student Leaders Program, but it’s actually not the most important. That happens now that the students have returned home and are implementing their community engagement plans. But they aren’t doing it alone. They know they have 14 other community change-makers throughout the Middle East they can connect with via text, chat or on Zoom. Plus, the MEPI alumni network is 1,400 strong and very active. 

“It’s so cool to see the partnerships that develop every year, many of which will continue long into the future,” Bottomley said. “We’ve had a number of MEPI alumni come back to UD to earn their undergrad and graduate degrees. Many have gone on to work in the Middle East and North Africa as doctors, lawyers, university professors, and community leaders; while making sure to reach out and serve as mentors to younger alumni.”  


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