At the tender age of 20, Tammy Mehdi is preparing to walk the corridors of power in the most famous house in the world. Next month Ms Mehdi, a mass communications graduate from the American University of Sharjah and a US citizen who has lived in the UAE for almost all of her life, will head to Washington, DC, to take up a prestigious, four-month position as one of 100 White House interns.
She has already been briefed on how to interact with the US president Barack Obama, should she run into him. Protocol forbids photo or autograph requests and almost all casual conversation. "I am only allowed to say 'Good morning, Mr President'," she said. Ms Mehdi said she was "shocked" when she was accepted into the programme. She believes an essay she wrote about the diminished reputation of the US government in the world and the Obama administration's chance to address that was crucial, as well as her being based in the Middle East, a region that takes up much of Mr Obama's time.
Ms Mehdi will be working in the communications department at the White House. Specifically, she will be assigned to new media, which focuses mainly on the website www.whitehouse.gov but is also involved with the White House presence online in forms including Twitter and Facebook. Shin Inouye, a White House spokesman, said yesterday that Ms Mehdi was among "roughly 1,000 people" who applied for the internship period.
He said he did not know if Ms Mehdi was the first resident of the UAE to be selected for the programme. The assignments given to an intern could include conducting research, managing inquiries, attending meetings and writing memos. Communications was her first choice from among a dozen departments. Other departments include the First Lady's Office, the travel office and the office of public engagement and inter-governmental affairs.
Competition for a spot in the programme was stiff. Applicants went through a rigorous screening process that included filling out a questionnaire and writing a pair of 200-word essays. "We were asked some really random questions, like our favourite food, our favourite song and thing to do," Ms Mehdi said. She believes the two essays carried the greatest weight. One essay was on her commitment to public service. She described charity work in which she had been involved, including raising money and collecting goods in 2005 for earthquake victims in Pakistan and holding a car-cleaning event to raise cash for survivors of the December 26, 2004 tsunami.
In her second essay, she wrote about the damaged reputation the US has suffered since the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq and the war on terror, which has seen hundreds of US personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Addressing herself to Mr Obama, she wrote, "You are our chance to gain back our good reputation". She quoted a recent study that showed 71 per cent of people polled in 18 countries saw the US as a "source of evil", and said foreign policy is the key to reversing this view.
"We have been failed by the Bush administration and I said in my memo that Obama's change needs to be real, not just words," she said. Ms Mehdi was born in Kuwait and was brought to the UAE in 1990, first living in Al Ain and moving to Sharjah in 2003. Her mother is from Chicago, which Mr Obama considers his hometown, and her father is Pakistani. Her parents met while her father was studying in the US.
The internship represents another kind of adventure for Ms Mehdi. She lives on the Sharjah campus with her parents, who are professors there. Their daughter has never lived away from home. Her mother will accompany her on the trip to the US, but Ms Mehdi will live alone in the American capital. "I have heard that Washington is a really dangerous place but where I'm living is meant to be OK," she said. "But I don't know if it will be OK to walk alone at night like it is here."
She will be taking the bus to work, a world away from the campus life she has enjoyed. "I can't even find warm enough coats and shoes to take with me in the shops here so I'll have to do my shopping when I get there," she said. The Obama administration launched its internship programme last year to bring in groups of 100 interns described as a "select group of young men and women from across the country" to work in the White House as part of a process designed to groom future leaders.
"This programme will mentor and cultivate young leaders of today and tomorrow and I'm proud that they will have this opportunity to serve," Mr Obama said on the programme's website. Ms Mehdi is applying for postgraduate courses in new media at a range of institutions, including George Washington, Georgetown and American universities in Washington, and hopes her internship will help her secure a place.
"I'd love to work in broadcast journalism and would love to be a news anchor," she said. Ms Mehdi will have a job title that belonged to several Americans who went on to positions of prominence. They include Brian Williams, the anchor and managing editor at NBC Nightly News; Nora Ephron, the screenwriter nominated three times for an Academy Award; Susan Mercandetti, the executive editor at the US book publisher Random House; and the Fox News journalist Neil Cavuto. Some White House interns have returned to work there, including Nancy-Ann Deparle, the director of the White House Office of Health Reform, and Anita Dunn, former White House communications director.
Ms Mehdi's mother, Laurie, said she was nervous but excited for her daughter. "We never thought she'd get it, to be honest," she said. "Living out here, we thought there would be plenty of other candidates who'd get it first but I think in the end it was what made her stand out. It will open so many doors for her. She's very confident." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org * With additional reporting by Hala Khalaf