Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Student Spotlight: Hamidou Sylla ’23 MPA

When Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs MPA student Hamidou “Hammi” Sylla was an undergraduate at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, he identified a need for a forum where academics from a variety of disciplines could share and debate their views on the issues of the day. According to Sylla, “as an undergraduate, I sometimes felt siloed within my department. I learned from the faculty I knew, but I didn’t always get to hear what people in other disciplines thought.” 

It was this drive to go into greater depth on critical issues that led him to create “Let’s Just Talk with Hammi,” a YouTube talk show intended to bridge the gap between disciplines and present multiple perspectives so that students could develop a more nuanced understanding of politics and world events. 

His desire for interdisciplinary education and the ability to approach complex issues from multiple perspectives led him to the Watson Institute’s Master of Public Affairs program. “I wanted to be in an environment where that would be fostered,” said Sylla. He added, “The MPA program seemed to be organized in a way so that on the first day, I knew what I was coming into. I knew what I would be taking, and I knew what I would leave with. As someone who had a vision for myself and where I wanted to go, that was appealing to me.” 

Born in the Republic of Guinea, Sylla emigrated to the United States with his family and attended middle school and University Prep Charter High School in Bronx, New York. This background informed his commitment to social justice. “I’ve always been interested in economic development and generating solutions to complex issues faced by underserved communities both domestically and abroad,” said Sylla. “I’m passionate about alleviating stress from the lives of others,” he continued, “I view that as my life’s mission.”

While it has evolved, Sylla has continued producing “Let’s Just Talk” at Watson, where he finds his classroom learning complements the experiential learning he enjoys while creating his talk show. “The program itself is focused on the policy-related skills I’m developing in the classroom,” he said, “but I’m also learning many production and media skills. Since coming to Brown, I edit the show myself. I market it myself. I’ve learned about social media algorithms and have been able to grow my social media presence and add subscribers to my YouTube channel.” Sylla noted that he has found Watson's faculty and staff helpful as he works on episodes. “Most of the doors that I've knocked on at Brown have been open to me,” he said.

While at Watson, he has interviewed Watson Scholar and Director of Middle East Studies Nadje Al-Ali about feminist activism in the Middle East. He’s also interviewed Institute guest speakers Omar Shakir, the Israel and Palestine Director at Human Rights Watch, about human rights abuses in Israel and Human Rights Lawyer Malika Saada Saar about technology and human rights. In another episode, he discusses China’s zero-Covid policy with Emory University Associate Professor of Sociology Bin Xu.

As for his plans for the future, Sylla said, “I’m very mission-driven when it comes to my career. As long as the mission of the space I work in aligns with what I want to do, I think I’ll be satisfied. But I’ve enjoyed working at the intersection of production, media, politics, policy, and research. So in the short term, I’d like to continue doing something related to that.”

 — Pete Bilderback