Arizona students take part in United Planet program supported by Stevens Initiative grant to connect youth through virtual exchange - AZEdNews
Sections    Thursday March 23rd, 2023

Arizona students take part in United Planet program supported by Stevens Initiative grant to connect youth through virtual exchange

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  • Amanda Soh   |   United Planet

A United Planet Volunteer Works With Children Building A Global Community One Relationship At A Time. Photo Courtesy Of United Planet.

Last week, five Arizona high school students, including Ajah-Rain, a high school sophomore in Chinle, Arizona and one of four students from the Tribal Community, began a special United Planet American-Iraqi virtual international exchange program and public health initiative to address COVID-19.

The program is organized through United Planet, a non-profit organization with a mission to create a global community, one relationship at a time.

She will work virtually alongside 96 other student volunteers from high schools across the U.S. and Iraq through video conference from now until August 31.

“Like so many places in the world, communities in the Middle East are reeling from the impact of the global pandemic. Bringing students and educators together across borders to find solutions to our common struggle will help with the recovery while creating the next generation of culturally-aware, action-oriented, and tech-savvy global leaders,” said Dave Santulli, founder and president of United Planet.

The Stevens Initiative announced that the American-Iraqi Public Health Teams Addressing COVID-19 Project, implemented by United Planet, is one of 18 programs funded as part of the Stevens Initiative Response to the Coronavirus Pandemic.

With this funding, United Planet will plan and implement a virtual exchange program based in the United States and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

Around the world, schools and institutions are using virtual exchange to help young people develop cross-cultural relationships and vital skills. While traditional in-person education and exchange programs have been cancelled for the summer, virtual exchange programs like United Planet’s American-Iraqi Public Health Teams Addressing COVID-19 Project continue to be a sustainable and accessible global learning tool.

“While we cannot predict what lies ahead with the pandemic, we are pleased to work with our grantees to provide virtual exchange opportunities when the world is deeply in need of connection. Together, we are revamping curriculum, leveraging technology, and innovating to build programs that might not have existed otherwise. While each program is unique, we all share in wanting to develop a more globally-minded and resilient generation of changemakers,” said Christine Shiau, managing director of Stevens Initiative at the Aspen Institute. “The Stevens Initiative proudly supports our 17 new grantees as they help to drive our mission to provide an international learning experience for young people.”

Learn More about United Planet Volunteer Opportunities

Under the Stevens Initiative, American-Iraqi Public Health Teams Addressing COVID-19 Project, implemented by United Planet, will give high school and university youth from diverse parts of the US and Iraq a unique opportunity to collaborate on meaningful and impactful projects designed to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

With guidance from college students and faculty from Boston University and Salahaddin University in Iraq, the student volunteers will use project-based learning to research, develop, and implement initiatives to address COVID-19 in communities. At the same time, they will enhance their 21st-century leadership skills and deepen their understanding of public health through an intercultural lens. The program is supported by a grant from Stevens Initiative and the US State Department.

University students from Boston University studying health science and global health and students of Salahaddin University in Iraq specialized in social work will lead and mentor American-Iraqi public health teams made up of high school students from each country, while engaging in real-world, problem-solving activities.

Using project-based learning, teams will research, develop and implement public health/COVID-19 activities to support their communities and share project outcomes.  In doing so, participants will enhance their 21st century skills and deepen their understanding of global public health through an intercultural lens.

“The opportunity to work across institutions and cultures gives us the hope of taking on the challenges of COVID-19 head-on. In the search for solutions, we hope to see innovation and creativity, personal growth, and professional inspiration evolve in each student involved in the program. We hope to inspire lifelong learning and create a thirst for greater cultural understanding and awareness. It is an honor and privilege to be a small part of these rising leaders’ journeys, who are at the forefront of change,” said Donna Lubrano, United Planet’s virtual exchange officer , who is also a professor at Northeastern University.

“A key aspect of Sargent College’s mission is to create an environment that fosters critical and innovative thinking to best serve the health care needs of society,” said Shelley Brown, clinical assistant professor & director of International Service Learning at Boston University College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences: Sargent College.

“We are thrilled to partner with United Planet on this unique opportunity. Our shared sense of purpose will help solve global health challenges related to COVID-19 through creative solutions developed by the high school and college student participants,” Lubrano said.

Other faculty and staff from Boston University include Professor Nancy Lowenstein and academic counselor Roz Abukasis.

Through these grants, up to 4,500 new youth participants in 11 MENA countries and the Palestinian Territories and in 24 U.S. states, three tribal communities, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Washington, D.C. will engage with their peers around the world for summer programs that otherwise would not be possible due to the pandemic. Grants were awarded on a rolling basis, and, depending on the grant, virtual exchange programs started as early as June and end as late as August.

A number of grants will support 174 educators to plan and train for fall virtual exchange programs, which remains an urgent need due to a likely continuation of closures and disruptions.

Other grants include:

  • AMP Global Youth’s Global Scholar Program connects and empowers rising youth leaders from the United States and the MENA region as they address current global challenges, including COVID-19.
  • Citizen Diplomacy International of Philadelphia’s How to Succeed as an Innovator is a one-month, summer virtual exchange program for STEM students in Philadelphia and Egypt bridging the gap between STEM subjects learned in school and the real-life path to entrepreneurship.
  • Creativity for Peace’s Transformational Encounters connects American, Palestinian, and Israeli youth via the virtual landscape of storytelling and the rich connection of food culture.
  • Cultural Vistas’ Learning, Information, Networking, Collaboration (LINC) gives young people the opportunity to explore their future STEM careers by collaboratively addressing common global STEM challenges.
  • Engineering World Health’s Engineering World Health Virtual Exchange is an international collaboration of undergraduate STEM students from the United States and Lebanon who work together to create innovative solutions to health care problems in low-resource settings.
  • Global Education Benchmark Group’s Sustainable Development Virtual Exchange connects high-school students from across the United States and Morocco and provides them the opportunity to investigate three of the UN Sustainable Development Goals to learn more about themselves, their peers in other regions and countries, and the significant challenges facing our global community today.
  • Global Ties Kansas City’s MOR-USA Virtual Exchange Program brings together approximately 20 students from Morocco and the United States for a shared collective of their artistic talents.
  • International Education and Resource Network’s Digital Storytelling Workshop is a ten-day immersive experience with daily activities that foster self-exploration and teach compelling storytelling through digital technology skills.
  • Madison Area Technical College’s Economic and Social Entrepreneurship in a Post-COVID World engages underrepresented community college and high school learners in cross-cultural learning.
  • The Marshall Legacy Institute’s Peacemakers and Problem Solvers virtually unites American and Yemeni high school students for peace, leadership and project management education, and cross-cultural engagement.
  • Missouri State University’s Virtual Exchange for Teacher Candidates is a program supporting future teachers from Morocco and the United States as they learn with and from each other.
  • Southern New Hampshire University’s Global Education Movement (GEM) is an initiative that provides refugees and those affected by displacement the tools to become agents of change by earning accredited bachelors’ degrees and fostering connections to meaningful and well-compensated careers in business, humanitarian aid, and the global digital economy.
  • Texas International Education Consortium’s Virtual Exchange for Undergraduate Nursing in Texas, Egypt and Jordan is an eight-week virtual exchange capacity-building program for 44 undergraduate nursing faculty from 22 colleges of nursing in Egypt, Jordan, and Texas.
  • The African Middle East Leadership Project’s Global Allyship Curriculum matches young social activists in the United States and the MENA region to encourage collaboration on how each community can support one another during this time of global upheaval.
  • The Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center at University of Montana’s Connecting Montana and Egypt in a Global Leadership Initiative will spend the summer preparing to connect students from Montana and Egypt to highlight the importance of citizen diplomacy during the 2020-2021 academic year.
  • United Planet’s American-Iraqi Public Health Teams gives high school and university youth a unique opportunity to collaborate on meaningful and impactful projects designed to address public health issues, including the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • United Planet’s Global Virtual Exchange Teacher Training and Professional Development brings together middle and high school teachers from diverse populations in Iraq, Jordan and the United States for an engaging summer program filled with theory and “hands-on” experiential learning opportunities.
  • World Chicago’s Youth Diplomats, an experiential learning program to equip and empower youth to be global citizens, partners with Hands Along the Nile to lead a four-week virtual exchange between youth in Illinois, Florida, Missouri, Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia.

The Stevens Initiative is an international effort to build global competence and career readiness skills for young people in the United States and the Middle East and North Africa by growing and enhancing the field of virtual exchange. Created in 2015 as a lasting tribute to Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, the Initiative is committed to helping to expand the virtual exchange field through three pillars of work: investing in promising programs, sharing knowledge and resources, and advocating for virtual exchange adoption.

 United Planet is a non-profit organization with a mission to create a global community, one relationship at a time. Established in 2001, United Planet offers personalized, immersive, in-person and virtual service-learning, international experiential learning, and internship experiences as well as project-based virtual exchanges in collaboration with an extensive network of partners in more than 30 countries. Volunteers and interns have helped address important global issues—such as health, children and education, and environmental sustainability while developing leadership and other 21st century skills, building bridges across divides, and forging cohesive and productive cross-border both in-person and online.

United Planet’s American-Iraqi Public Health Teams Addressing COVID-19 Project is supported by the Stevens Initiative, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, with funding provided by the U.S. Government, and is administered by the Aspen Institute. The Stevens Initiative is also supported by the Bezos Family Foundation and the governments of Morocco and the United Arab Emirates.

More Information

The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) builds relations between the people of the United States and the people of other countries through academic, cultural, sports, professional and private exchanges, as well as public-private partnerships and mentoring programs. These exchange programs improve foreign relations and strengthen the national security of the United States, support U.S. international leadership, and provide a broad range of domestic benefits by helping break down barriers that often divide us. Visit

The Aspen Institute is a global nonprofit organization committed to realizing a free, just, and equitable society. Founded in 1949, the Institute drives change through dialogue, leadership, and action to help solve the most important challenges facing the United States and the world. Headquartered in Washington, DC, the Institute has a campus in Aspen, Colorado, and an international network of partners. For more information, visit

The Bezos Family Foundation supports rigorous, inspired learning environments for young people, from birth through high school, to put their education into action. Through investments in research, public awareness, systems building and programs, the foundation works to elevate the field of education and improve life outcomes for all children.

The Kingdom of Morocco has held a longstanding commitment to the promotion of peace, mutual understanding and respect across all fora. In line with this commitment, the Government of the Kingdom of Morocco is a strong supporter of the Stevens Initiative and is proud to be included in its programs, which foster opportunities for cross-cultural exchanges between youth.

The Embassy of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in Washington, D.C. is committed to promoting and increasing cross-cultural understanding and educational exchanges. In line with the UAE Government’s values, the Embassy supports educational programming at schools and universities across the U.S. The Embassy works with U.S. institutions to provide unique opportunities for peer-to-peer exchanges and help broaden student’s horizons.