Monday, August 11, 2014

Meeting Obama at the White House Correspondents' Dinner

Let me tell you about one of, if not the, most surreal days of my life. My name was called out, and I walked on stage in front of a crowd that included the likes of Robert De Niro, Zooey Deschanel, and Barbara Walters. I was hugged by Michelle Obama, then shook hands with the President of the United States, who told me he was "very proud" of me, then cracked a joke with Joel McHale.

"Breathe. Take it all in," Major Garrett from CBS News told me as he firmly shook my hand. I walked off stage to a smiling crowd. "Congratulations," a woman told me as I walked back to my seat. "Thanks!" I replied before realizing this woman was movie star Kristen Bell.

Last year, I was in my room in Cairo watching YouTube clips from the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and dreaming of one day attending that event. Was I still dreaming? It wasn't until the next day, when I saw photographic evidence of my encounter with President & Mrs. Obama that I realized I wasn't.

The truth is, dreams do come true if you work hard enough, and last month, at least three of mine did. I graduated with a Master’s degree in Journalism from Columbia University, I lived in New York City, the capital of the world, for a year, and I didn’t just go to the White House Correspondents’ dinner, I received an award from the White House Correspondents’ Association at the event, and I got to meet President Barack Obama himself. 

In May 2013, I got a phone call that changed my life. I was at a conference in Cairo when my phone rang. It was the Fulbright commission, letting me know that I received the grant that would send me to my dream city to attend my dream school: Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

It has been wonderful, enriching, surreal, magical, and, by far, the most exciting year of my life. But, make no mistake, getting this degree was anything but effortless.

We all boast about our accomplishments and share our shiny, smiley photos, but you rarely ever see the behind-the-scenes. Let me tell you about the exhausting times, the sleepless nights, the stressful days, the hundreds of emails, the daily deadlines, and the re-writes of the re-writes.

I’m not going to lie; there were days that I wanted to give up because of how challenging everything was. But I didn’t.

I didn’t because I couldn’t. I didn’t just work hard in my classes throughout the year; I worked even harder to get here. It took me three years of hard work, tough career decisions, and reporting on the ground when everyone else avoided the streets. It took me multiple rounds of tear gas, speaking to victims of abuse, dealing with hostile crowds, witnessing inhumane violence, attending trials of strangers and friends, dozens of applications, rejection letters, more work, and draining, exhausting persistence.

Getting the Fulbright grant was my proof that when you work hard, you will be rewarded.

And I guess what I’m trying to say is dream big, but work harder. Because here I am, one year later, in a reality that far exceeded my dreams. I have met the most brilliant people, had the most riveting conversations, laughed about things I never knew existed, and yes, I shook hands with the most powerful man in the world.

Thank you again, and again, Fulbright.

Deena Mohamed is an Egyptian Fulbrighter who graduated from Columbia University with a degree in Journalism.

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