On the Rise

April 15, 2021
young woman putting books on a shelf

As Hillary Clinton’s executive assistant, Opal Vadhan is living the dream she started building at Pace: She’s making an impact.

Sometimes you meet a person and you just know they are going to do amazing things. Opal Vadhan is one of those people.

Before graduating from Pace in 2015, Vadhan had accomplished more than many people do in their entire careers. She was a two-time recipient of the New York Women in Communications Scholarship. She interned at NBC Nightly News, Sony Music, the Rachael Ray Show and MSNBC. She was a campus editor at large for HuffPo and freelance reporter for TV ASIA. She went on mission trips to Jamaica and was an energetic and devoted resident assistant on campus. And she was awarded one of the most prestigious and competitive internships in the nation—at the White House.

She was living the American Dream—the one that her mother and father had come to this country from India to give her—and she wasn’t ever going to stop.

“After graduating from Pace, I knew I wanted to work in public service and politics,” Vadhan says. “I was interviewing for jobs in the Obama Administration. Then my mentors told me that I would get the best experience and learn a lot by working on a presidential campaign. At the time, I didn’t know a lot about Hillary Clinton, and to be honest, I wasn’t sure if this is what I was supposed to do. But I gave it a try.”

Vadhan got a job on Hillary for America’s advance team. In politics, an advance team oversees all the logistics, including travel arrangements and scheduling, for the candidate’s appearances. Everything from a dinner at a restaurant to a 10,000-person rally—the advance team is responsible for planning it all.

After advance training in New York, Vadhan landed her first stint as a “RON” (remain overnight—the person who stays overnight with the candidate and her traveling party on the road) in Columbia, South Carolina, and then another trip in New Hampshire.

That’s when Vadhan saw firsthand who Hillary Clinton is—and why she was destined to become Vadhan’s hero.

“We were in New Castle, New Hampshire, and she was going to a town hall,” she remembers. “She got in her car, but there were a few hotel guests taking pictures. So she got out of the car to speak with them and take pictures with them. Then she came back to where I was standing with two hotel cleaning staff who were about to clean her room. She spoke to them and took pictures with them—and they were absolutely overjoyed.”

“I was so amazed that this woman who had a town hall to go to took the time to do that,” Vadhan continues. “It was such a beautiful moment! I walked back into the room and started crying. I called my mom and said ‘This is the woman I’m going to work for and going to give my life to.’ Here we are running for president and she’s talking to these women, talking about their kids, what they want to do in the future. Hillary Clinton is doing things for the good of the people and she cares.”

In the months that followed, Vadhan worked hard on the campaign. She loved her colleagues. “I was amazed by everyone’s kindness and willingness to teach younger members of the team,” she says. And each day, she grew prouder of the work she was doing and the “brilliant, kind, and compassionate” person she was doing it for.

Then came Election Day.

“For me, it was one of the biggest days of my life,” Vadhan says. She was on the team responsible for Secretary Clinton’s hotel logistics, which meant she spent Election Day at the Peninsula Hotel in Manhattan. But first, she had something else to do. “We had some members of the senior staff who had arrived off the plane to the hotel around 4:00 a.m.—and then I went home to Queens to vote with my mom around 6:00 a.m. I could not believe the woman on the ballot was the woman I worked for. It was one of the proudest moments of my life.”

As the results rolled in, excitement turned to devastation for Vadhan, her team, and more than half of the country. But there was still work left to do—and a concession speech to give. And that was one of the moments that Vadhan says captured the candidate she had grown to know and admire.

“Right before she’s getting in the car to give her concession speech, Secretary Clinton turned around and said ‘Opal, how was your high school reunion? I know you were excited about it,’” Vadhan recalls. “We had talked about it the week before during a RON in Miami. Things were really busy, but she said ‘you have to go to your reunion.' Now here was Secretary Clinton about to give one of the biggest and most difficult speeches of her life, and she’s asking me about my reunion. Too few people got to see the Hillary Clinton I got to see—the woman who cares about everyone and is determined to make peoples lives better.”

"Growing up, I didn’t see many role models like me. People said my dreams were too big and put me down and I know I want to leave the world a better place than when I found it.”

There was a bigger lesson that day for Vadhan. “Watching her give that concession speech showed not only me but also millions of people that she was still committed to uniting us as a country,” she says. “And no matter how heartbroken we are, it showed that we can keep going and it’s our responsibility to continue to try to help as many people as possible.”

That’s exactly what Vadhan did.

“I knew as soon as the next day that I didn’t want to stop working for her,” she says. “I felt like I had so much more to serve, to give, and to learn.”

Today, Vadhan is Hillary Clinton’s executive assistant.

“I’m grateful and I have to pinch myself every day that this is my job and I’m on a team with incredibly talented people,” she says. “This was my first job out of college, and I get to work for the most accomplished woman in the world—a First Lady, a Senator, a Secretary of State, and the first female Presidential candidate for a major party. My boss has changed lives, saved lives, and made the world a better place. I always knew I wanted to help people and I get to help people through her.”

For Vadhan, each day is a new lesson from her idol. Whether it’s little things like learning how to make really strong tea or big things like fighting for what’s right and practicing the discipline of gratitude, her boss is her teacher.

Here’s one example. “One time, I was with her and [Communications Director] Nick Merrill. I had lipstick in my teeth. She said to me, ‘Go to the bathroom, you have lipstick on your teeth.’ I turned to Nick, and said ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ She said, ‘Us girls have to look out for each other.’”

As for what’s next, Vadhan has come to realize that the best things in life happen when they are completely unplanned. But there’s one thing she’s sure of. “I know that I want to continue to make a difference and help people—whether it’s working for people like my boss or volunteering with kids in need. Growing up, I didn’t see many role models like me. People said my dreams were too big and put me down and I know I want to leave the world a better place than when I found it.”

“My one piece of advice is to always dream big, work really hard, be grateful, pay it forward, never let anyone tell you that you can’t do something…and remember the world is yours.”