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More than anything, Othman Ladan ’19, a community health major, cares deeply about helping people, a devotion that is bolstered by his Muslim faith. Originally from Ghana, Ladan spent the summer before his senior year back in his home country to educate Muslim women about breast cancer and oversee a breast cancer screening event for hundreds of people—a significant achievement considering Islamic religious restrictions.

Ladan explained that Muslim women are not allowed to be seen naked by male doctors. “Some Muslim women will not even let a female doctor see them. I was trying to understand the relationship between religion and health,” he said.

After traveling back to Ghana in the summer of 2018, Ladan met up with his uncle, Firdaws Ladan, to figure out a way to educate Muslim women about breast cancer. After founding the non-profit Lean On Me Foundation 20 years ago in Kumasi, Ghana, his uncle was in a prime position to help with the project. They spoke with one woman after another, raised awareness and planned a breast cancer screening event for 500 women—a turnout that astounded the four female nurses conducting the private screenings.

“I was born and raised in Ghana, and I know my people very well. We don’t really have a lot of health educators who talk about this sensitive issue. What I realized was that Muslim women didn’t realize how dangerous breast cancer was,” Ladan said.

He has continued his humanitarian work with the Ali Amir Foundation, an organization that Ladan co-founded with Khalifa Sallah last year. “The main goal is to get blind people accepted in the community. We are serving over 400 people in Ghana,” he said.

The organization helps to supply blind people with braille books and other basic supplies, such as personal hygiene items. “Regardless of where I find myself, helping people or making a difference gives me joy. It gives comfort to my heart,” Ladan said.

Ladan credits a therapeutic recreation class he took with Adam Wheeler, a faculty member in SUNY Potsdam’s Department of Public Health and Human Performance, as the inspiration for starting the Ali Amir Foundation. “Adam Wheeler changed my whole perception of disability. I left his class crying because it really touched me. His class is the main reason that I got involved with blind people. If it wasn’t for him, the foundation wouldn’t even exist,” Ladan said.

Wheeler isn’t the only professor to influence Ladan’s life. He also worked with Dr. Chris Torres and Dr. Brent Crow to spearhead the creation of a Public Health and Human Performance think tank. As part of the research team, Ladan helped with a cigarette butt mapping project on campus, to determine if people are smoking in designated areas. He also sent out a surveys to students, faculty and staff to determine physical fitness levels, and conducting other health-related projects at the College. 

“Every time I have a problem with research, or trying to critically think and analyze something, Torres is the person I go to. He challenges me! He pushes you to the point where you start to think critically,” Ladan said.

He said that faculty members Dr. Crow and Dr. Patricia Anafi have both had a positive impact on his life. “SUNY Potsdam has a lot of good resources. Professors are willing to help you if you go to them and tell them about your project or whatever you have in mind,” Ladan said.

Ladan moved to the U.S. from Ghana when he was 17 years old. He finished high school in the Bronx, spent one year at SUNY Canton, and then transferred to SUNY Potsdam to pursue a degree in community health. “Potsdam is peaceful. I feel like I learned more about myself when I moved up to the North Country. I can just sit down and think critically and think about issues. I get to breathe in and breathe out—the environment is good, the campus has good energy and good vibes,” Ladan said.

Whether he’s in Ghana or in Potsdam, Ladan is always driven by his faith. As co-founder of Ummah, the Muslim student association on campus, he regularly meets with students to teach them about the Koran—acting as a sort of religious counselor and helping them maintain their faith amidst their hectic schedules. “My main goal is to try to keep them in line with their religion. Sometimes the problem that we face, with a lot of students coming here from New York City, is that they lose their faith. As a Koran teacher, it is my responsibility to keep everybody in line,” he said.

Ladan speaks four languages (Hausa, Twi, Arabic and English), and he has memorized the entire Koran. “It’s 114 chapters, 6,666 verses, I have memorized it all. I know what the book is saying, so I have to speak about it,” he said.

As part of his community health major, Ladan completed two internships during his last semester on campus. First, he worked at Canton-Potsdam Hospital to educate families about nutrition and fighting obesity, before heading down to New York City to oversee similar educational objectives with at-risk populations, through an internship with the Cornell Cooperative Extension. When he graduated from SUNY Potsdam, Ladan was offered a temporary position with the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Canton, N.Y., through Sept. 2019.

"I had the best time at Cornell Cooperative Extension. As a nutrition educator, I provided a confidential nutrition education program that helps families manage food resources during tough economic times. My goal was to improve the health and well-being of families with limited resources. Through a series of lessons, I provided practical, hands-on activities and healthy meals, as well as exploring the importance of physical activity in a healthy lifestyle throughout St Lawrence and Franklin County," Ladan said.

Article and Photos by Jason Hunter