PhD Alieu Sanneh gets a ‘lifeline’ to achieve his dreams at UMSL

by | Feb 15, 2021

Sanneh grew up in The Gambia and decided to change his life through education at a young age. He has now earned an MA and PhD in political science.
Alieu Sanneh

Alieu Sanneh grew up in The Gambia and decided to change his life through education at a young age. He attended an elite high school and graduated from the country’s first public university. In 2014, he came to the United States to study political science, earning an MA and PhD from UMSL. In addition to his studies, Sanneh raised money for students at the Triton Telefund and interned at the Anti-Defamation League. (Photo by August Jennewein)

As a boy, Alieu Sanneh was incensed watching his parents toil for little money in The Gambia.

Sanneh was a naturally curious kid, always reading, and his family’s situation only strengthened his resolve to further his education. His parents never had the opportunity to go to school, but he would.

“I knew that there were two things that I could do,” he said. “My dad was a farmer, and being a farmer in Gambia means you get stuck in poverty. But I thought, ‘Or I could change my life and become different. Choose education, however hard it is.’ I could just test myself and see if I was good at it.”

Now, Sanneh, who is the son of a farmer and domestic worker, is a doctor after recently completing his PhD in political science at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

Along the way, he served as head boy at one of Gambia’s elite high schools, graduated from the country’s first public university and recounted his story to numerous UMSL alumni while working at the Triton Telefund.

Though Gambia escapes the attention of most Americans, the country has shaped Sanneh’s path in life, as well as his interest in political science.

A small sliver of a country in West Africa, it surrounds the Gambia River and is itself surrounded by Senegal. After independence in the 1960s, Dawda Jawara ruled the country for 30 years until Yahya Jammeh, a young military leader, deposed him via a bloodless coup in 1994.

Sanneh said Jammeh clearly reigned as a dictator, but his rule also brought the first concerted efforts to build infrastructure, hospitals and schools. One of those schools was the University of the Gambia, the first higher education institution in the country.

As an undergraduate at the university in 2010, Sanneh started working with Emil Nagengast, a professor from Juniata College who was guest teaching a political science course and starting a study abroad exchange in Gambia.

The two quickly connected after Sanneh heard one of his lectures.

“The way in which politics was taught at that time in my university, it was pretty much censored,” Sanneh said. “Because we were living in a dictatorship, political freedom was not guaranteed. You say something, and you might end up getting arrested. So, when Nagengast came, somebody not from Gambia, and taught me all these different theoretical perspectives, I got a very strong interest in political science.”

Sanneh stayed in touch with Nagengast and helped him coordinate subsequent study abroad programs. He even offered the professor a little constructive criticism.

“I asked him, ‘Why are you here? What’s the goal?’” Sanneh said. “He said, ‘Well, we’re here on a study abroad program, and we want to learn this and that.’ So, I kind of look at him, and I’m like, ‘Yeah, but it sounds to me like you guys are just tourists.’”

To incorporate more cultural education, Sanneh arranged for the American students to visit villages and take part in village life. He also set up meetings with politicians and representatives from non-governmental organizations working in the country.

During the same period, Sanneh became acquainted with St. Louis-area native Andy Blunk through the university. With Nagengast and Blunk’s help and encouragement, Sanneh applied and was accepted to a master’s program at Webster University in 2014.

He made the transatlantic trip to Missouri believing that his schooling would be paid for by the Gambian government. Then he got a surprise of a lifetime.

“When I got here, everything went upside down,” he recalled. “They didn’t follow through with the promise they made. I was stuck.”

It seemed like an impossible situation to navigate – stranded in a foreign country without funding. To add to the turmoil, he arrived in the midst of social unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, after the shooting death of Michael Brown.

But Blunk and his family quickly rallied around Sanneh.

Blunk’s grandmother, Sheillah Rogers, gave him a place to stay in Webster Groves, Missouri, and immediately became like his own grandmother. The family also pooled together enough money to enroll Sanneh in a few classes at Webster while he figured out what to do next.

On the advice of the Blunks and Nagengast, Sanneh decided to transfer to UMSL. He was accepted to the master’s program in political science and received a scholarship from UMSL Global.

It was an incredible relief and also a gift Sanneh didn’t want to waste.

“I was working on that master’s, working very hard to maintain my grades,” he said. “I applied for the PhD by chance, thinking maybe there could be funding. I got into the PhD program, and the UMSL political science department gave me a full scholarship to study.”

Sanneh continued to work hard, obtaining an internship with the Anti-Defamation League. After watching the events of Ferguson unfold, he had been inspired to work toward social justice. He also wanted to give back to the university.

The Triton Telefund provided an opportunity for Sanneh to tell his story and also raise money for students in need of financial support. This past semester, he ranked second in the amount of money raised.

“Being a university that is transforming people’s lives is not a controversial statement,” Sanneh said. “That is a statement of fact that can be substantiated by how I have benefited. A lot of underprivileged students that have similar backgrounds to me have benefited from the university.”

Sanneh successfully defended his PhD dissertation on Gambia’s 2016 presidential election on Jan. 11. He’s now looking for positions as a professor, but he hasn’t ruled out returning to Gambia.

“My political science education has empowered me with knowledge that I can use to better the lives of my people,” Sanneh said. “Politics isn’t the only way that I could do it. I could do it at an NGO. I could do it in many ways, but the education that I have from UMSL will be an incredible asset.”

If he does go into Gambian politics, he said he would champion data-driven policies and investment in education. Most importantly, though, it would be a job, not a means for personal enrichment and power.

Sanneh isn’t sure what’s next, but he’s certain his achievements would not be possible without the unconditional love and support of the Blunk family and the opportunities UMSL provided.

“UMSL gave me a lifeline for me to achieve my dream,” he said.

Burk Krohe

Burk Krohe

Eye on UMSL: Building blocks
Eye on UMSL: Building blocks

Members of the Spring 2024 graduating class of the University of Missouri–St. Louis play Jenga during the annual New Grad Bash on Thursday.

Eye on UMSL: Building blocks

Members of the Spring 2024 graduating class of the University of Missouri–St. Louis play Jenga during the annual New Grad Bash on Thursday.

Eye on UMSL: Building blocks

Members of the Spring 2024 graduating class of the University of Missouri–St. Louis play Jenga during the annual New Grad Bash on Thursday.