(Photo courtesy of Edwin Remsberg)
University of Maryland alumna Leyla Merlo, a public health science major and sustainability studies minor (2019), has been awarded the USAID Donald M. Payne International Development Graduate Fellowship, which provides up to $96,000 in benefits over two years for graduate school, internships, and professional development activities to prepare for a career in the USAID Foreign Service. Merlo is one of nine fellows selected from across the nation and UMD’s first recipient of this award.
“As a Foreign Service Officer,” Merlo said, “I would like to give people the tools they need in order to be self-reliant. I want to be a source of positive change in the lives of others, to give people hope that they aren’t going to be in the same place forever.” Currently a faculty research assistant at the Horowitz Center for Health Literacy at the UMD School of Public Health and formerly a McNair Scholar, Merlo plans to pursue a master’s degree this fall in international development studies with a specialization in global health at the George Washington University.
While growing up in Silver Spring, Maryland, Merlo traveled to Peru regularly to visit family. “I would see too many kids who weren’t living in the greatest health conditions, many who were malnourished.” She first learned about public health in high school and the possibilities of preventing diseases. Connecting this new knowledge to her experiences in Peru, she realized that she wanted to focus on global health, helping vulnerable communities.
At the University of Maryland, she declared a public health science major, but it was through a course on global health with Dr. Amir Sapkota that her goals came into focus. “We learned about the health status of populations all around the globe, and how natural disasters, infectious disease, and especially nutrition affected health,” Merlo said. “I was drawn to nutrition—especially among mothers, pregnant women, and children. I learned how malnourishment and not having enough to eat was a food insecurity issue. I thought about what I have seen in Peru and realized that there are things people can do. Programs can be developed, people can be educated, and policy can be changed to address nutrition, which is critical among growing children and breast-feeding women.”
This realization, along with a pivotal experience in Liberia, confirmed the direction of her future and career. In 2018, as a member of the UMD student-run organization ROOTS Africa (of which she later served as president), Merlo traveled to Ganta, Liberia, to begin the process of achieving ROOTS' mission. The organization works to address food insecurity by raising awareness of sustainable agricultural practices and encouraging youth to think entrepreneurially about agriculture. In Ganta, the students visited three villages and taught workshops, primarily in elementary schools to audiences of all age groups. They focused on methods to improve plant and soil conditions to produce healthier crops.
“In Ganta, I gave a presentation on maternal health and food safety for women,” Merlo said. “I developed a PowerPoint to share that included guidelines for healthy food choices, what their babies will need to develop in a healthy way, as well as methods for safe food preparation.”
Merlo continued her connection to Liberia by taking a Global Classroom course that focused on agricultural topics. She and her classmates worked with Liberian students on three projects: a radio program to encourage farmers to call in with questions, a project to increase awareness of the students’ agricultural lab, and a program to establish relationships with high school students to encourage their interest in agriculture. “It was a humbling experience to be able to hear their stories,” Merlo reflected. “We learned about conditions in the agriculture sector there and acquired a new global way of thinking about agriculture, how to solve problems. It fostered a new sense of possibility.”
“Ever since Liberia and working with Liberian students, I have been thinking about what it would be like to serve, to address problems that are critical in the development of countries,” Merlo said. “My experience as a Peruvian American, my experiences in Peru and in Liberia, and my experiences in learning about areas of public health and sustainability have ingrained in me a strong desire to serve others.”
Now that she has been accepted into the Payne Fellowship program, she said, “I want others to believe in themselves, to study what you really want, reflect on your interests, and reflect on your values. You also have to find and develop a network of mentors who can give you guidance and help you find different opportunities to succeed through internships, funding, and opportunities to pursue higher education. I have had many people who helped me on this journey and I am excited to serve.”
Merlo hopes to be a role model for other prospective Foreign Service Officers from underrepresented backgrounds. “This could be you, your career,” she emphasized. “You can make a difference in the lives of others by putting everything you’ve learned and your skills to use, by making your passion a reality.”
Learn more here about the Donald M. Payne International Development Graduate Fellowship Program.