A Psychology Major Turned Her Internship into Advocacy

Mickayla Coutinho Brandao helped champion girls’ sexual health and rights in Accra

“Helping people is kind of my thing,” says junior NYU Psychology major and Africana Studies minor Mickayla Coutinho Brandao. “I always knew I wanted to be a therapist of some sort. I like to hold conversations, to pick the brain, and figure out how it works.” So it’s not surprising that she rose to the occasion when an opportunity to help presented itself. While studying abroad at NYU Accra, an academic location that offers the Community Psychology course, Mickayla discovered that Ghanaian schools barely touch upon sex education. She also learned that young women often perceive teenage pregnancy as a route to improved social standing and financial security. “After encountering that,” she says, “I thought it was important to establish a safe space for girls to discuss sensitive topics—from feminine hygiene products and hormones to harassment and child marriage—that they otherwise may not have an outlet for.”

Student Mickayla Coutinho Brandao sitting on the top of a park bench, surrounded by an array of flora.

Opening a Dialogue

As an intern at BASICS International, a nonprofit providing education and resources to impoverished communities in Ghana, Mickayla helped facilitate after-school activities for over 100 children and young adults between the ages of 6 and 19. In addition, she and fellow NYU student Kate Ferrall founded an empowering all-girls club called Power of Love Girls (PLG). PLG is an initiative focusing on menstrual hygiene and its linkages to sexual health and rights. Its main goal is to offer a safe space to young women in the communities BASICS serves. “I interned with Planned Parenthood during my senior year of high school,” Mickayla says, “so I already had a background in U.S. sex education. But I wanted to learn what the girls are told at home and taught in school to understand their perspectives first.”

As a Psychology major who believes in the power of conversation, Mickayla thought it was important that PLG was dialogue-based. This helped make the club applicable to the girls’ daily experiences. “We met twice a week,” she says. “On the first day, we held an open dialogue to find out what they wanted to discuss. Specifically, we wanted to know if there were any issues in their community or experiences they had that they wanted more information on. Then Kate and I researched whatever topics surfaced between the first and second meetings in order to figure out where and why the problems occur, what nongovernmental organizations already exist to address the problems, and how to teach them the scientific aspects of sexual health.”

Mickayla Coutinho Brandao midlaugh.

Leaving Her Mark

To ensure PLG’s survival after their semester in Accra ended, Mickayla and Kate compiled a guide detailing the club’s goals, policies, and infrastructure that anyone can reference to support its continued success. And though Mickayla returned to campus in New York City, where she now facilitates conversation and creates a supportive community at NYU Coral Tower as a resident assistant, she is happy to report that Power of Love Girls is still operating. “Interns and volunteers may come and go, but PLG needs to be a permanent outlet for those girls,” says Mickayla. “We received great feedback from them, and I got the sense that they felt very safe and comfortable speaking with us.”