• Donna Smith, St. Petersburg College

International student hopes to better his community

Updated: Sep 18, 2020

Growing up in Timbuktu

When St. Petersburg College International Student Sane Haidara was an 11-year-old boy growing up in Timbuktu, Mali, he liked to hang out around the hotels in what was then a tourist destination. He enjoyed practicing his English and talking to the visitors from faraway places. In 2001, he met Floridians Tony and Patricia Leisner, and spent a few days with the couple.

“Little Sane, unlike the other kids, wasn’t trying to sell jewelry or t-shirts or just asking for money,” Patti Leisner said. “He just wanted to talk to us.”

Before the Leisners left, Haidara presented Tony with a business card he’d made for himself, which included an email address from his school account, and asked if they could be pen pals. And so was born a relationship that ultimately brought him to the states and to a bachelor’s degree in Public Policy and Administration from St. Petersburg College. The youngest of seven children, Haidara was raised by parents who put a huge value on education.

“As a teacher, my father tried to encourage the community to send their kids to school,” Haidara said. “He went house to house to invite children in the neighborhood to come home and study with us. He wanted to make sure all children were educated, including the girls, who were often denied an education.”

Tony and Patti kept up with his grades throughout his schooling, and they supplemented his studies with American English lesson cassettes and books.

“He got extraordinary grades,” Tony said. “He won awards and distinguished himself with a commitment to education.”

Becoming an international student

When high school was done, all the time spent honing his languages among the tourists paid off. Haidara is fluent in French, English and three African languages, and he speaks limited German and Arabic. His abilities landed him a job as a translator, and he earned enough to pay for college. He was unhappy with what was available to him in Mali, so he asked the Leisners to sponsor him as a student. They happily agreed, and helped him through the visa process. Tony, who teaches Public Policy and Administration at Walden University, was also on the board for Worknet Pinellas, so he was aware of the programs available to International students at St. Petersburg College and recommended that he enroll there.

“I knew this was going to be a little bit of a culture shock for him,” he said, “and SPC had great remediation. I knew that once they got him over the humps, he would do well.”

Center for International Programs Director Ramona Kirsch said that from the moment Sane entered SPC, he proved to be an exceptional international student.

“Sane quickly became involved in student activities, encouraged SPC international students to become civically engaged, and served as a role model for students around the state of Florida by being chosen as a peer leader for the annual Florida International Leadership Conference,” Kirsch said. “We look forward to seeing great things from him.”

Haidara enrolled in the Public Policy and Administration program, landed a job as a Student Assistant in the Fine Arts Department, and set about joining several campus organizations, including International Club, in which he became President, American and Arabic Cultural Association, Phi Theta Kappa and the City/County Management Association, where he is finishing his term as Vice President. He also volunteered as a French tutor, a summer camp counselor for disadvantaged children and offered himself as a speaker to several organizations. He was also part of SPC’s Model United Nations team, which won the designation of “Outstanding Delegation” at the Collegiate Model UN conference in D.C. last fall. Haidara attributes his success to becoming so involved.

“I was welcomed as a community member,” Haidara said. “The International Program at SPC helped me through and gave me a lot of guidance and advice, but getting involved helped me overcome a lot of challenges, make friends and build leadership skills. Any student who wants to be successful should be involved in order to do well and overcome challenges.”

A commitment to his community

Haidara not only graduated with a 3.32 grade point average, but also, his Capstone Project outlined a program that would offer three meals a day to schoolchildren in Timbuktu.“ Growing up, I saw friends and community children who were not be able to attend school because of poverty. They were needed to work. I hope this would encourage them to go to school and encourage parents to send them.”

Haidara is currently applying to master’s programs, where he hopes to refine his project, then take it back to Mali to see if he can get it off the ground and make it sustainable. He hopes to work with Mali’s government and other international organizations to see how he can implement this program. He feels that he was equipped to do so by the Public Policy Program.

“Professor Kronschnabl gave me the support I need to learn to be a good leader,” Haidara said. “He provided a lot of knowledge to help Mali. You talk to experts in the community, and you learn to do presentations in the community. You gain work experience – it’s not just class work.”

Kronschnabl described Haidara as an outstanding individual with real character. His character and efforts were acknowledged with multiple foundation scholarships. He was also named Clearwater’s Dr. Theodore Mazzu Student Scholar of the Year award, Most Engaged International Student and was asked to speak at SPC’s Summer 2016 graduation ceremony.

In addition to the Leisners, his mother traveled from Timbuktu, and his sister and brother-in-law came with their children from Washington, D.C. to see him shine.In his speech, he urged listeners to become active their own communities, saying,

“In Africa, we have many sayings. We believe that if we stand tall it is because we stand on the backs of those who came before us, and we believe that tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it. More importantly, we believe that a single bracelet does not jingle.”

The Leisners are pleased with the man that the young boy they met in 2001 has become.

“We were so proud,” Patti said. “Not just for Sane, but also for us and his family. It was particularly great for his mother.”

“We were absolutely stunned at the quality and the content of his speech, and his delivery and poise. I attribute that to the terrific support he’s had at SPC,” Tony said. Haidara credits his father, who passed away in 2006, with his drive to make a difference in the world.

“My father did tireless work to encourage the education of boys and girls in the community. He believed a community could address its own problems if it was educated. That really encouraged me to try and fulfill his wish and hope to see all children educated.”

Though he plans to eventually return to Timbuktu and work to better his community, Haidara said he will always have a connection to St. Petersburg College.

“SPC gave me training and confidence and made me realize I can achieve anything,” he said. “I want to thank SPC faculty and staff. They really work hard to make student success come first. When I first started, I didn’t know if I’d do well, but if you want to study, SPC will always help you.”

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