Building a New Start at SMPA

From political asylum, Nasser Diallo arrived in the U.S. speaking only French. He graduated from SMPA in 2018 and is now enrolled at Oxford.

Nasser Diallo at the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs
November 12, 2018

By Melissa Nyman

On a Saturday afternoon last May, Nasser Diallo, B.A. ’18, walked across the stage at the Charles E. Smith Center, like thousands of other GW graduates. But the 36-year-old’s journey to that stage — and to a new life — was unlike any other.

In 2009, Diallo was a successful journalist in Guinea, West Africa, when he was suddenly forced to leave his homeland behind. He made plans to pursue a master’s degree in France but soon had a revelation.

“Speaking one language,” he said, “was not sufficient to be immersed in a global world. I decided I would challenge myself, go to the United States and start from scratch again.”

Under political asylum, Diallo arrived in New York City speaking only French, with limited options for work. Over the course of nine months, he leveraged the city’s public library system to teach himself English. He then landed a job with a Harlem-based community health center and studied at a community college. All the while, he inched closer to a long-held dream.

Diallo had covered politics in Guinea, where he saw firsthand how political communication functioned for his people. In 2008, he was invited to the U.S. to report on the presidential election, and his perspective changed drastically.

“Compared to what I had seen in Guinea, it was two different worlds,” he said.

Diallo was inspired by the “data-driven” approach in the U.S., and by the ability to think strategically about how to reach a candidate’s target audience.

In Guinea, he saw a lack of data and understanding on both sides of the ballot.

It bothered him when Guineans cast votes only because a candidate spoke the same language or hailed from the same region. Likewise, candidates often lacked the numbers and strategy to effectively campaign beyond the location of ethnic groups.

“I told myself, political communication and grassroots organizing through digital media, was my future,” Diallo said.  

When Diallo was ready to transfer to a four-year school in the U.S., only one stood out: the George Washington University. The political communication program at the School of Media and Public Affairs was Diallo’s first choice, but when enrolled in January 2016, he didn’t know how challenging he would find it.   

Prior to GW, Diallo had never written a paper longer than six pages, double-spaced. He vividly remembers when he learned that some of his papers that first semester would be 15 or 25 pages.

He wondered, “How will I do it?”

Part of the answer came from the deep connections Diallo forged with his professors. Every time he approached them with questions, they found ways to help him acclimate to a fast-paced campus life.

In particular, Diallo’s first class with Professor Steven Livingston help set the tone for the rest of his trajectory at GW. When Diallo said it was a challenge, as a non-native speaker, to simultaneously follow the lectures and take notes, Livingston offered to add visual aids. For Diallo, it was life-altering.

“Thinking about that class alone, the way I had to learn enabled me to adjust in all my other classes and completely changed (me) as a student,” Diallo said. “It showed me that it’s not just about sitting in a classroom — it’s also having a professor who cares and understands.”

Livingston remembers not only Diallo’s ability to adapt, but his passion to make a difference.

“What makes Nasser special,” Livingston said, “is his compassion, his decency as a human being and his relentless drive to improve himself, with the goal to return home to improve the lives of his countrymen and women.”

Diallo was soon fully immersed in life at SMPA. He wrote papers on how to conduct social media campaigns, met his future GW New Venture Competition partner, Jerome Dineen, BA ’18, and connected with numerous other professors — including Imani M. Cheers, Robert Entman, Ethan Porter, Kerric Harvey, Peter Loge and Frank Sesno — all of whom had a unique and lasting impact.

During a study abroad session, Diallo returned to France and put his skills to work. He interned with La République En Marche! and was then hired as a digital media director during Senator Leila Aïchi’s 2017 run for French Parliament.

For two months, he was on the campaign trail through eight countries in North and West Africa, where he managed all social media efforts and media relations.

“That’s where I learned that political communication goes hand in hand with public policy,” Diallo said. “Understanding how citizens will challenge some of your policies… and getting ready to justify those policies… that makes the difference between winning and losing.”

Diallo returned to GW to work on his senior thesis, which focused on how current African presidents use Twitter to communicate with their constituents. Professor Catie Bailard served as Diallo’s adviser for the data-heavy project.

“I really hope that in my life I will make someone feel the way (she) made me feel.” Diallo said. “I did not know how to approach my data, and I was panicking. Her ability to listen carefully and make suggestions based on her experience… (it) was a life-changer.”

While at GW, Guinea was never far from Diallo’s mind. Along with classmate Jerome Dineen, Diallo created the social venture Clean Up, which envisions a way to transform waste management in the city of Conakry.

Because the majority of waste — which piles up throughout the city — comes from kitchen use, Clean Up seeks to convert the waste into biogas and distribute it to underserved communities.

During the 2018 New Venture Competition, Clean Up advanced through two of four total rounds and gave Diallo hands-on experience and invaluable feedback for the project, which is he still working on today.

As Diallo prepared to leave GW and begin his next chapter, he learned that his path ahead would once again involve crossing an ocean. With an acceptance to Oxford University’s Master of Public Policy program in England, Diallo is now crafting a new chapter of his life, striving to become the type of political communicator he wished for years ago.

When he finishes at Oxford, Diallo dreams of returning to Guinea one day, to help others — possibly as a politician himself. Wherever life takes him, he says his time at GW will remain close.

“I carry (this university) in my heart. When I go back home, I will be an advocate, and I will want my family members to come here,” he said. “I will have (GW) in my life forever.”