Guy Samandari came to Bishop State not able to speak any English. Two years later, he has graduated with a full scholarship to Alabama State University and big goals for the future.(Photo courtesy Courtney Steele, Bishop State)

Published: Jun. 09, 2022, 8:00 a.m.
By Michelle Matthews |

After two years at Bishop State Community College in Mobile, Guy Samandari, a native of the East African country of Bujumbura, Burundi, speaks fluent English. But he was stumped by the word “homesick.”

“Do you ever feel homesick?” I’d asked him.

He’d never heard the word, and when I tried to explain what it meant to be homesick – a common condition experienced by college students who long for home – he still didn’t understand. “Where I’m from, you must learn how to survive without being close to your family,” he finally said.

But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t miss home when he’s some 8,000 miles away. (He did return to Burundi last summer for a month-long visit, so that helped.) When I asked him what he misses most, he had a ready answer.

“Here I am, far away from my parents and brothers and sisters, as well as all my childhood friends,” he says. “What I miss the most at home is the family.”

Guy is so determined to succeed, so laser-focused on his education, that he honestly doesn’t have time to feel homesick. And anyway, he knows that returning to Burundi one day is all part of his plan.

So far, his studiousness has paid off. Guy received a full-ride presidential scholarship to Alabama State University in Montgomery; an additional Propel Student Impact Scholarship worth $10,000, which is presented to an innovative student attending a historically Black college; and an All-Alabama Academic Scholarship worth $1,000. This summer, he will move from Mobile to Alabama’s capitol city for the next phase of his education.

His father, Jean Samandari, traveled from Burundi to see his son graduate from Bishop State in May. He planned to stay for a month to do some sightseeing throughout Alabama, including a visit to Alabama State and The Legacy Museum in Montgomery.

Guy often quotes his father and the lessons he imparted. “As my dad used to tell me, the important thing is not to do a big step, but to do steps the right way,” says Guy. The Southern version of that adage might be “don’t bite off more than you can chew,” or “don’t get too big for your britches.”

He ended up in the South after originally landing in Seattle, but he found the Pacific Northwest too cold and dreary. “The weather was not for me,” he says. He learned about Bishop State from his uncle, who lives in Mobile, where the climate was much more to Guy’s liking.

Once enrolled at the community college near downtown Mobile, Guy had to get used to “a new school, a new environment, a new way to study,” he says – not to mention a new language. He took a three-month English as a Second Language course to prepare himself.

Growing up in Burundi, Guy spoke French as well as his native Kirundi. He took one hour per week of English in high school. In his first class, English 198, the instructor, Larene Peeples, “was speaking very fast for me,” he says. “I had to stop her. She could see on my face that I didn’t understand.”

To make it easier for Guy, the teacher would type and translate what she was saying. “All my teachers were very supportive and understanding,” he says. “They did more than they were supposed to do. For me to catch up, I have to process in three languages to understand. I’m thankful for them.”

Art instructor Lydia Host met him through her role as an advisor to Bishop State’s Phi Theta Kappa (PTK) Honor Society. “I got to know Guy a bit better as he applied for a scholarship and I edited his writing about himself,” she says. “I was sort of blown away because I didn’t realize that he really had barely spoken English just the year before. He came here during Covid and basically was able to master this language as well as earn top marks while living with his uncle and knowing no one.”

Becoming involved in PTK helped Guy make friends. “When you’re international, you have books, a computer, homework – you have nobody, so you look forward to new things,” he says.

One of his favorite experiences was Mobile’s Mardi Gras celebration. Before moving to Mobile, he says he had only seen Mardi Gras “in the movies.” He and his friends in the honor society got to ride on a float in a parade. “To be inside of the ceremony is a very good experience,” he says. “It’s something you need to understand to know how good.”

He wasn’t used to writing papers, but once he got the hang of writing he says he “found out I’m a very good writer.” After spending countless hours in the school’s assistance learning center, he became a tutor himself, helping his peers with math and history. He was also one of two students at the school chosen for the 2022 All-Alabama Academic Team.

Yolanda McNeil, the school’s international student advisor, says Guy stood out at Bishop State because of his work ethic and has been “like a son” to her. “I’ve done this for eight years,” she says. “He was the first student I’ve had who’s done what he’s done. The coordinator of the learning center doesn’t want him to leave, either. He has really made an impression at this school.”

Though Guy is finished at Bishop State now, he plans to help recruit other international students – including one of his sisters, who is following in his footsteps and plans to attend the college as well.

At Alabama State, he plans to study accounting and finance, then return to Mobile for a master’s degree in statistics and possibly a doctorate from the University of South Alabama. He quotes his father again: “As my dad always says, we need to use our brains while we’re still young.”

One thing he knows for sure is that he is going to return to his home country to try to make a difference there. “I would like to accomplish great things once I return to Burundi,” he says. “I would like if God allows me to have a position of responsibility… to be able to contribute to the economic development of my country, but apart from that I would also like to create an accounting company that will help new entrepreneurs do well.”

Lydia Host is among those who have no doubt he will do anything he sets his mind to do. “He is one of those people who show up and do what is needed every time,” she says. “He says yes to opportunities and follows through. He is an inspiration to the other PTK students and his classmates. He is an amazing person.”

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