Valerie Jenness UCI Professor
She met the pope and Miss Piggy, kept President Obama on schedule and taught the leader of the free world how to “Zot!”
For three years, UCI alumna Ferial Govashiri was a whirlwind at the Oval Office, where she served as the commander in chief’s personal assistant and occasional chess opponent.
On Jan. 20, she returned to civilian life and began plotting her next act, which includes writing a book, although not about what you might expect.
But first, she’s taking a breather.
“It still hasn’t hit me that the job ended,” says Govashiri, a 2005 political science graduate. “Even now, if I take a nap, I wake up in a panic, wondering ‘Where’s my phone? What have I forgotten to do?’”
The adventure began in 2007, when her bosses at a Pasadena political consulting firm recommended her to one of their Chicago office’s clients — a senator named Barack Obama. At the request of his staff, Govashiri “flew to Iowa and did a rally there.
Then I was invited to New Hampshire and then to South Carolina. Finally, I said, ‘I have to go home to Laguna Hills to get new clothes.’”
Soon, the Iranian-born Anteater was helping to manage the future president’s campaign advance team.
After the election, she segued to a post at the National Security Council, where her duties included planning Obama’s foreign trips. In May 2014, she became his personal aide, sitting at a desk right outside the Oval Office.
From that vantage point, camped beneath an oil painting of the Statue of Liberty, Govashiri directed traffic, steering a parade of politicians and luminaries into and out of the president’s orbit. She obsessively eyed the clock to keep Obama on time, set up his phone calls and scrambled to ensure that he had all the documents needed for meetings.
“There were days I felt like mission control,” Govashiri says.
The job had its quirky moments, such as playing chess with the president, meeting Miss Piggy (who stopped by for a Christmas ceremony), watching Obama test a pair of virtual reality goggles and getting bombarded with letters — many from prison inmates — seeking Govashiri’s help. She also once crashed a private meeting between the president and Pope Francis to let them know the pontiff was late for his parade.
Other incidents on Govashiri’s highlight reel include:
Dancing with the commander in chief outside the Oval Office
Riding in a 100-car motorcade through Myanmar as thousands of people lined the streets (“Presidential motorcades are the coolest thing ever,” she says. “Seeing one in person is unreal.”)
Encountering actors George Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio at the White House (“They definitely have auras about them.”)
Accompanying Obama when he delivered UCI’s 50th anniversary commencement address in 2014 (One of the graduating seniors was Govashiri’s brother, Sina. Obama made the trek after UCI students and alumni deluged the White House with 10,000 postcards asking him to speak. The president told the crowd at Angel Stadium of Anaheim, “You had the inside track in getting me here because my personal assistant, Ferial, is a proud Anteater.” He then joked, “Until today, I did not understand why she greets me every morning by shouting ‘Zoot! Zoot! Zoot!’”)
Although the job entailed long hours, Govashiri nevertheless squeezed in time to date, plan a wedding and get married. For her ceremony in Orange County, Obama secretly taped a video message that was played at the reception. “I have no idea how he did that,” she says, “because I tracked everything he did each day.”
Now that her boss and colleagues have scattered to make way for a new administration, Govashiri hopes to move back to Southern California and find a career in which “media and technology intersect.” She also wants to write a children’s book about the history behind some of the monuments in Washington, D.C.
In the meantime, Govashiri has signed up with a speakers’ bureau to give talks about her West Wing exploits and the lessons she learned along the way. Working in the White House will be a tough act to follow, she says: “It isn’t often you get a front seat to history.”
Roy Rivenburg, UCI
Photo by Pete Souza, The White House