Carnegie Mellon University

CMU/WSP Qatar

March 17, 2020

Seven thousand miles away from campus, CMU Qatar students experience Washington, DC

By Bill Brink

Two nights before Aisha Al-Ali was to leave Qatar for Washington, DC, the US killed Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, in a drone strike in Baghdad. The Iranians swore revenge, and tensions that had simmered for decades threatened to boil over.

Al-Ali didn’t care. She was doing the Washington Semester Program.

“I am going,” she said. “I want to do this program so bad that I don’t care if it’s World War III.”

This school year, Al-Ali and three other students became the first from Carnegie Mellon’s Qatar campus to participate in the Washington Semester Program, which allows students from any course of study to live, work and learn in Washington, DC. Each semester, a cohort of roughly 20 students lives together in the Senate Square Building; interns with Congressmen, think tanks and nonprofits; and takes courses in policy, media, intelligence and lobbying at night.

“If anyone has any interest in public policy or working in the government, this is definitely a very eye-opening experience,” said Abraham Farooqui, another CMU Qatar student who participated in the program. “It shows you what your options are and what there is available.”

As a kid growing up in Qatar, Al-Ali dreamed of becoming an ambassador. She wanted to study politics and policy until she got to high school, when business seemed more prudent, and she is now majoring in Business Administration. Taking some history classes when she got to college awakened her inner diplomat.

“And then when I saw this program, it was like getting the best of both worlds, studying in CMU and graduating with a business degree, but then at the same time I can have a minor in public policy and politics, which is something I wanted to do since I was in high school,” said Al-Ali, now a junior. “I wanted to try this.”

Auguste Piromalli found his way to DC from France, his home country, via Qatar. He applied to several universities in the United Kingdom, and only one – Carnegie Mellon – in the US. Waitlisted, and set to go to the University of Edinburgh, Piromalli got an email from CMU suggesting, with his international profile, that he consider the Qatar campus.

“Carnegie Mellon was the choice for me because it aligned very much with the values that were important for me, this idea that research was important, this idea that innovation was important, this entrepreneurial spirit was very appealing to me,” Piromalli, a junior, said via video conference from France during spring break. “I just liked the whole environment. It offered a very, very quantitative education and therefore a prestigious and good education, while having a very research-oriented, innovation-oriented environment.”

Farooqui was born in Arizona, but moved to Saudi Arabia and then Qatar before college. He is a senior Business Administration major concentrating on finance accounting analytics, with plans for graduate studies in economics.

“I wanted to get more exposure to this area, so I thought DC and the internship opportunities that were present in DC would give me enough exposure to see, what are my opportunities out there,” he said via video conference from Doha, the site of CMU Qatar.

When Al-Ali arrived in the US, she was scared. She wore a hoodie to cover her hijab.

“I got homesick my first month,” she said. “I was like, ‘I want to go back,’ but then I got used to it. I got used to the workload, the lifestyle, working in the [Qatari] embassy and then coming here and having work, it all worked out fine, I’d say.”

“Here” was Carnegie Mellon’s DC offices and classroom, on the fifth floor of the United Methodist building on Capitol Hill. It sits next door to the Supreme Court; down the block is the Capitol. Farooqui could walk from the apartment to his internship at The Heritage Foundation to class and back home. At Heritage, he worked in the tax policy department under a senior analyst, writing briefs, updating models, finding data. He also attended Heritage-sponsored internship seminars.

Piromalli interned with Carnegie Mellon’s Center for International Relations and Politics, helping IPS director Kiron Skinner with research. He scoured presidential schedules for state visits and turned them into data points; Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first term, for example, contained a lot of events focused on the Soviet Union. He also helped Dr. Skinner with briefing books.

“Washington was a way for me to discover politics and public policy, the policy-making process in general, how is it all crafted with the different stakeholders,” Piromalli said. “Being able to just attend conferences and lectures all around the city with the very lawmakers who wrote this law, or the people who were the actors of that subject, was very interesting.”

Al-Ali interned in the public diplomacy department of the Qatari embassy. She interacted with charities, attended galas and wrote proposals. The Qatari embassy works with a nonprofit called Children of Fallen Patriots, which provides scholarships and educational counseling to children who lost a parent in the line of duty, and Al-Ali authored a proposal to have the children travel to Qatar to study.

At a talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the man sitting next to Al-Ali noticed her notebook’s embassy watermark and asked who she was. “I said, ‘I work at the embassy,’” she said. “He said, ‘I’m the former ambassador of the US for Israel, UAE, Jordan, Egypt,’ and then he gave me his card. I was like, wow. It’s DC. You don’t know how’s sitting right next to you. That’s been really cool.”

Piromalli enjoyed Washington Semester Program fellow Joseph Devine’s internship seminar, as well as the guest speakers in the policy forum. Al-Ali was pleasantly surprised that the curriculum included the Department of Defense.

“Before coming here I didn’t know anything about DOD,” she said. “But now I know how to write a memo to the Secretary of the Department of Defense. I have a toolbox and now I have more tools to put in that toolbox. I can write very formally, I can write to someone very important.”

Recently, Al-Ali spent three hours on just one floor of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Farooqui rented a bike to explore the city. “It feels a lot more open,” he said. “I think that’s because the buildings aren’t as tall, you can actually see the sky. It exceeded my expectations of what there is available, what there is to do.”

The COVID-19 outbreak cut the Spring 2020 semester short for Al-Ali and Naram Hajjar, the fourth student from CMU Qatar, but the students left DC with valuable lessons.

“If you have an interest into understanding how policy works and how the policy-making process works, which is everywhere for our democracies … those are processes that are at the heart of virtually all of our actions,” Piromalli said. “As a citizen we should be interested in those processes. Understanding those by being at the heart of it in Washington is amazing.”