Mervike Baraka is discovering herself and learning to showcase her love of fashion design

Mervike Baraka. Courtesy photo

Mervike Baraka is an ambitious, attentive and purposeful young woman. But that wasn’t always the case, she says. She was timid and lacked self-confidence. The Olympia Snowe Women’s Leadership Institute helped her change that.

The senior at Lewiston High School was part of the first class of students to take part in for U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe’s three-year leadership program, which focuses on helping young women gain leadership, collaboration and problem-solving skills. And while Baraka was at first hesitant about her participation, she says today it was the best decision she’s ever made.

The 17-year-old budding fashion designer has been battling her fear of public speaking her whole life. She was born in a Tanzanian refugee camp to Burundian parents. She landed on American soil when she was 7. “I believe my fear of public speaking stemmed from the fact that people who are from where I am—especially women—have a small amount of choices on what to do with their lives,” Baraka says. “A woman would either be a teacher, nurse or housewife.”

One of Mervike’s illustrations. Courtesy photo

She convinced herself that she would never be anyone other than a shy, quiet girl who never raised her hand in class. She was afraid to open up to anyone about her passion for fashion and design. “How was I ever going to become who I dreamed and longed to be if no one heard what I had to say about my passions?” she says, and admits her low self-esteem and confidence caused her to miss out on many opportunities to shine. “I was always crippled by the fear of failing. There are fashion shows at school that I could have participated in, and opportunities for young artists. I was afraid that I didn’t have what it took to be great.”

Baraka’s guidance counselor talked her into signing up for the beta model of the leadership institute her sophomore year. Baraka was one of 50 students from seven high schools in Androscoggin County to join in 2015. “I can truly testify that I have been changed by this program,” she says. “I am not where I want to be, but I’m still discovering and evolving myself. Next year in college, I plan on making drastic improvements on showcasing my passion.”

One of Mervike’s illustrations. Courtesy photo

That passion—fashion design—began when Baraka arrived in the United States. “I was coming from a country with an extremely different fashion culture,” she says. “I loved the diversified fashion culture in America.” She plans to translate this love into a degree in luxury brand management at Susquehanna University. And let her talents shine.

Melanie Brooks loves to write about Maine. Her work has been published in magazines and blogs throughout New England.

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