Alumni Profile: Ziad Haider ’99, White House Fellow

Ziad Haider ’99“Soup or salad?” The question makes Ziad Haider ’99 laugh. When he was a White House Fellow in the Department of Justice, Ziad attended a dinner hosted by a senior official in the Obama administration. During his Fellowship year, he often had such unique opportunities to discuss legislation, foreign events, and public policy with smart, creative public servants.

At this particular dinner, everyone around the table was a leader in their field, from medicine to the military, law to business, yet the question, “soup or salad?” was a stumper.

Finally, the host asked the head waiter whether a liquid placed in front of each diner—the liquid that Ziad and others had poured over their salads—was in fact soup or salad dressing. It had been a tough call for both guests and host, for slurping dressing from a spoon was no more appetizing than pouring soup over salad.

At the end of the meal, when the question finally was asked, Ziad awkwardly admitted that he was one of the offenders; he raised his hand, affirming that he had poured soup all over his salad. The funny, uncomfortable moment bred a maxim—”like soup over salad”—that the group would share throughout their year to highlight an important lesson learned: mistakes are expected and humility and self-deprecation are important, no matter one’s position.

One of the nation’s premier leadership programs, the White House Fellows started in 1964 with a two-fold purpose: to bring outside expertise into government agencies and to provide private citizens with the opportunity to get high-level experience in public service, then return to their careers with new perspective. Each year between 11 and 19 Fellows are chosen from among about 1,000 applicants. Once accepted, fellows are assigned to government agencies much as medical residents are assigned to hospitals, based on skills, interests, and fit.

Groton instilled in Ziad the desire to pursue public service. Every day on the Circle, whether mopping the Schoolhouse hallway during work program, performing dorm chores, or mentoring Second Formers, he was taught the value of service. After graduating from Yale, the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington hired Ziad as an analyst; he helped develop conflict resolution measures to help defuse nuclear-tinged tensions between India and Pakistan. A Fulbright Scholarship enabled him to travel to Malaysia to study Islamic Law and Muslim women’s rights. His international experiences caught the attention of then Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd, who hired Ziad to be his foreign policy advisor. Then, pursuing a joint degree from the Harvard Kennedy School and Georgetown Law, he merged his legal and public policy interests into work on issues of international peace and security.

Ziad learned about the White House Fellowship program while at the Kennedy School and was immediately intrigued. The rigorous application process, with many essays and interviews, forced him to step back and examine his career, his choices, and his intellectual passions. A three-day national interview with back-to-back interviews, simulations, and small group discussions with former senators, Army generals, and college presidents was daunting. In the end, joining the ranks of White House Fellows was an honor, as much for what lay ahead as for the distinguished and interesting individuals he met along the way.

Working in the Department of Justice for the Deputy Attorney General, Ziad for the first time approached national security issues from the perspective of the Executive Branch. Most heartening, as Ziad met with senior government lawyers and policymakers, were the spirited arguments that showed the Executive Branch not as an ideological monolith but as a place of debate, extending to issues such as the balance between civil liberties and national security. The issues were never easy and the compromises he witnessed were often far from satisfying, but the deliberative process left an impression.

Ziad knows that he is not alone in heeding Groton’s call to service, and he hopes that his experience as a White House Fellow will encourage other Grotonians to embark upon a similar journey into public policy.

At the end of his year as a White House Fellow, Ziad was invited to speak to the next round of national finalists. He gave them some advice: Don’t be afraid of those “soup over salad” moments, during the interview process and during the Fellowship year, no matter how rarified the environment.

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