Rutgers-Camden student's journey from Bangladesh to the White House

Salima Mostafa is in Washington as a White House intern.
Salima Mostafa is in Washington as a White House intern.
Posted: November 19, 2013

CAMDEN When Salima Mostafa received word this year of her acceptance into the White House internship program, she knew it was an opportunity she had to take, if she could.

It was a big moment - for her, her immigrant family, and Rutgers University-Camden. Mostafa, a first-generation college student who had holed up in her room each night for four years and consistently maxed out her course load, was about to graduate cum laude and was preparing to take medical school entrance exams. She would be the first White House intern in Rutgers-Camden's 63-year history.

"It was bittersweet because she's excited, this is an amazing, prestigious opportunity, but yet she's scrambling, because it's unpaid; she has to pay for housing, she has to pay for food," said Pamela Clark, a Rutgers-Camden student support administrator who has worked with Mostafa throughout her college years. "So the family, they were so excited for her, but yet they were worried about how to finance it."

To get to D.C., Mostafa, 23, called on a network of mentors she had built up as a biology major at Rutgers-Camden. Her mother took a night job to bring in extra money; her father reached out to the Bangladeshi community, finding her housing with the friend of a friend of a friend.

Clark found her some funding through a Rutgers-Camden program for first-generation students and those from low-income families.

The various threads of support came together, sending Mostafa to the capital for more than three months.

Since September, Mostafa has worked in the White House Office of Presidential Personnel, helping staff identify, recruit, and research candidates for appointments in government departments and agencies, according to the program's website.

Mostafa said she sees the internship as an opportunity to learn about public service.

"I dream of achieving a leadership role in the future, and I have always loved science so my ultimate goal is to become a physician," Mostafa wrote in an e-mail interview conducted through the White House Office of Communications. "I applied to this internship program in order to learn about public and health policy in hopes of being a health adviser later on after I graduate from medical school.

"My goal is to learn from those who work at the White House and learn the intellectual tools to help me become more than just a physician, but a charitable leader of the less-fortunate individuals of my community."

Rutgers mentors were not surprised she was considering public service: A 2012 recipient of a Chancellor's Award for student civic engagement at the university, Mostafa has volunteered more than 100 hours as a volunteer at Virtua Berlin and Virtua Memorial and has been involved with a high school sciences and technology outreach program, the American Red Cross, and Cooper University Hospital.

On campus, Mostafa was in the inaugural class of a program aimed at developing a social support system for science, technology, engineering, and math students. She spent summer of 2012 in the lab of Joseph V. Martin, the biology professor who runs the program, studying the effects of thyroid hormones on sleep.

"I got to know her pretty well, and she really was an excellent student, in all the ways that a student can be an excellent student, so she really did a lot of things that were outside of the classroom," Martin said. "She was an enthusiastic worker in the laboratory."

The road to the White House began in 2004, when Mostafa came to the United States with her family through a federal program to encourage diversity among the immigrant groups that come to America.

After a year in Atlanta, the family moved to Lumberton, Burlington County, and since 2008 has lived in the West Berlin section of Camden County's Berlin Township. In 2012, the family of four became U.S. citizens.

"After coming to America, we had to face a lot of troubles, lot of problems. I had no job. We had no house, we had no money," Mostafa's father, NM, said.

"Sometimes I could not give money. Sometimes I could not put supper. Sometimes I could not put food. A lot of troubles," he said.

Plagued by illness that kept him from steady work, NM Mostafa was unsure he could help his daughter take the internship.

"I do not know nothing of Washington or Maryland; I have no relatives or anything," he said. "I was so worried."

He called a friend in New York, who turned out to be close with the Bangladesh ambassador to the United Nations. The ambassador, in turn, called on a friend in Washington who provided Mostafa with housing for the internship.

Mostafa's mother, Shakila Banu, took a second job, working at Walmart during the day and a factory at night.

Before working in undergraduate research jobs such as the one with Martin, Mostafa herself worked at Olive Garden, a Verizon store, and Walmart, said her brother, Mostafa Mosabbir.

When Salima Mostafa would drive Mosabbir from soccer practices and school activities, he said, she would buy him dinner to save her parents the money. She also paid many of the family's bills, Mosabbir said.

Then Mostafa, who commuted to Rutgers-Camden, went home and studied for six to eight hours a night, her brother said.

"She usually stays in her room most of the time because she knows all the pressure that's on her through my parents. They don't really have that good of a job, so she knows she has to provide all that," Mosabbir said.

And when his sister was too exhausted to study late into the night?

"She would go to sleep around 10, saying she needs rest," he said, "then wake up around 4 o'clock, 5 o'clock to study, then take an hour or two rest, then go to college sometimes."

Mostafa's father called the internship one of the best things to happen to his family since coming to the United States.

"We are very much happy, and very much thanks to God," NM Mostafa said. "We are very, very grateful . . . It's the greatest news for everybody."


jlai@phillynews.com

856-779-3220 @elaijuh

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