Becoming Her American Dream
Pace communication studies student Opal Vadhan ’15 has interned at Sony Music, “The Rachael Ray Show,” Seventeen mag, MSNBC, and more. Recently she’s followed her American dream all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for an internship at the White House.
College Opportunity Summit. Pardoning of the national turkey. The “It’s On Us” campaign to end sexual assault. For most of us, these are topics that we’ve read about in newspapers, watched on TV, and tweeted about. For Pace communication studies student Opal Vadhan ’15, they are just a few of the projects she worked on during her fall internship at the White House.
Mr. Vadhan came to the United States from India, and started working at a Toys“R”Us, when his wife, Dr. Vadhan was pregnant with Opal. She had no intention of staying, but on the airplane, something told Mrs. Vadhan that she had to.
“She said it was me, it was me telling her ‘You need to raise me in America to give me better opportunities,’” says Vadhan.
Sacrificing their careers and the life they built in India for their daughter, Vadhan had the inspiration she needed to work hard, persevere, and never ever give up.
She began working at the age of 10, babysitting, tutoring, walking dogs, and then moved on to waitressing and retail. By 17, she had landed her first internship at producing a benefit concert for the nonprofit She's the First. She helped raise more than $30,000 to support girls’ education in developing countries.
At Pace, she only worked harder, building the resume of a seasoned professional through internships and opportunities at places like Sony Music Entertainment, where she worked with artists such as Usher, Justin Timberlake, and Kelly Clarkson; The Rachael Ray Show; Gimme Mo’ Productions; Seventeen Magazine; MSNBC; MTA’s Transit Transit magazine; TV Asia; and The Huffington Post, to name just a few, all before her senior year. She was also a two-time recipient of the New York Women in Communications scholarship.
By September 5, 2014, she was getting ready for her final year and classes at Pace, was a resident adviser at John Street with a crop of first-year students, and set to begin an internship at NBC News with Brian Williams. That was when the White House called. The internship she applied for on a whim months before was hers, and she had the weekend to make a decision.
How could she afford to be an unpaid intern five days a week? Could she still graduate on time? Would her RA job be there when she returned? She began making calls and the University rallied behind her.
From the Office of Student Success and Financial Aid, to the Communications Department and Housing and Residential Life, Vadhan worked with University officials to make the opportunity a reality. They assured her that she’d be able to keep all of her financial aid, scholarships and grants; maintain her full-time student status; take classes online; and more. “If it wasn’t for Pace, I wouldn’t have gone,” she says.
And if Vadhan hadn’t gone, she wouldn’t have realized her true calling: public service. Working 12–14 hours each day in the Office of Communications, she was able to make a difference, working on key White House initiatives that impact all Americans: like the College Opportunity Summit to improve education affordability and access, the “It’s On Us” campaign to end sexual assault, and the pardoning of the national turkey. She also monitored regional and specialty clips, managed RSVPs for major White House events, organized media coverage roundups, drafted releases, handled media inquiries, and many more challenging and exciting tasks.
“They’re invaluable skills that I learned there that I don’t think I would have learned anywhere else, besides the White House,” she says.
She was also able to bring her parents and brothers to the White House for a tour and to see the President and First Family leave on Marine One, a moment she felt had come “full circle. They were so proud and I think for the first time I felt like I was giving back to my parents who have worked so hard, who sacrificed their life in India to give me more opportunities. They showed me what it means to work hard and persevere, give back and to dream big,” she says.
And yes, unlike many people who work at a company for years and don’t get to meet their CEOs, she did get to meet the President. During his visit with the internship class, President Barack Obama asked for questions and Vadhan raised her hand. To her surprise, he picked her right away among the rest of her classmates.
“I said ‘Well, you know my parents were immigrants to this country and they sacrificed everything in India to give me the chance to have the American Dream, so I thank you because this is part of my American Dream by interning at the White House. So I want to know what is the best piece of advice you’ve gotten and your advice for young people who want to go into public service and maybe even become the president one day?”
His response, which is on the West Wing Week video: “Start getting a sense of what are your values, what do you care about, what’s important to you? What do you respect, what do you value, what satisfies you? And then work to align your behavior to what you say and what you care about.”
For Vadhan, the answer is simple: helping people. And she’s ready to get started. “I know my dreams have now changed and that I hope to be going to be back at the White House someday and I’m going to work there,” she says.
And when she does return to Washington, DC, and the White House, Vadhan will remember her time in those halls as a hard-working girl with big dreams during the fall of 2014. “Many people assume that White House interns are from Ivy League schools or have connections to the US government,” she says. “I am not any of those things—I pay for my college education, I have worked and interned for as long as I remember, and I have always believed in paying it forward. But what I do have in common with these people is that I am proud of my college. I am so proud that I attend Pace University, because its education is equal to any Ivy League institution.”
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