A Dream Realized
USC Dornsife alumna Parita Shah credits her immigrant family’s spirit of giving with her drive to make a difference in the United States government.By Laurie Moore
June 11, 2012
Parita Shah was a freshman in high school when then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton announced in 1991 he would run for president.
Shah, whose parents emigrated from India, monitored the presidential race closely on the family’s television.
“My parents, as immigrants, were especially interested in the American government and political system,” she said. “I grew up watching clips of President Reagan’s speeches on the evening news.”
As Clinton’s presidential race increased in intensity, so too did Shah’s interest in politics. She was impressed with Clinton’s vision and ability to connect with people.
“I said to my parents that I would work for him one day,” she said.
And she did, first as a White House intern while a political science student in USC Dornsife, then after graduation as a member of then-President Clinton’s advance team, involved with planning and coordinating the president and first lady’s trips and events around the world.
Shah is now a vice president at APCO Worldwide, a global communication consultancy. She previously held the positions of press secretary and deputy director of public affairs at the U.S. Department of Commerce as a political appointee in the Barack Obama administration.
She credits her passion for public service to the spirit of giving her parents instilled in her from an early age. Her father, Harshad, moved from Gujarat, India, to New York City in 1975. Shah’s mother, Usha, and brother, Mihir, joined him in 1976. A year later, they moved to Michigan where Shah was born, and the family moved to Anaheim Hills, Calif., when she was five years old.
Shah said she now has nearly 100 family members living in Southern California, many of whom benefitted from her parents’ generosity.
“My parents took everyone under their roof and got them to a point where they could stand on their own,” she said. Shah recalled a time when there were more than 20 people living in her family’s modest house. “They felt that was what they owed their family. That’s the kind of giving spirit I grew up around.”
Giving back didn’t stop there. While Shah and her brother, a fellow USC Dornsife graduate (B.S., exercise science, ’96), were growing up, their parents put a strong emphasis on civic engagement and the importance of community. Shah’s parents were proud of their heritage, but also of their adopted country because of the opportunities afforded to them and their children.
“This country has been good to my family, and I always thought that I needed to give back,” Shah said.
When Shah came to USC Dornsife in 1995, she tried out a few majors but ultimately decided on political science. In between classes on political history and presidential elections, Shah volunteered with USC Dornsife’s Joint Educational Project (JEP), teaching science curriculum in local 4th grade classes, which she said was an impactful experience.
“I still talk about JEP to this day,” Shah said. “Every time I walked off campus I realized how important it was to give back to the community.”
Later in her USC career, she took part in the Washington, D.C., semester program, and applied for an internship at the White House.
Shah said that the internship program was not well-known at the time, and she had no contacts, so she called 411 for the number to the White House. She asked the White House switchboard operator about the opportunity, and several weeks later she received an application packet in the mail.
“In politics, so many times you move forward because you know people who can get you there,” she said. “My first entree into politics was literally a cold call to the White House.”
There, she worked for the White House Advance Office, which organized the logistical planning for every event attended by President Clinton or First Lady Hillary Clinton. Far from making photocopies or delivering mail, this internship allowed Shah to gain firsthand experience in organizing high-profile events.
Shah enjoyed her semester in Washington, D.C. so much that she continued volunteering for the advance office after she returned to USC Dornsife, taking a week off here and there to fly to event locations around the country in preparation for presidential visits.
After she graduated in 1999, she traveled for the White House full-time. She continued working for President Clinton until the end of his administration in January 2001, then afterward for the Clinton Foundation.
In 2002, she traveled with the advance team for Clinton’s trip to South Africa to host an event with the country’s former president Nelson Mandela.
“When you’re in this world of planning high-profile events for important people, you’re just thinking about getting your job done,” Shah said. “But when I was in a holding room briefing Mandela and Clinton about the event, I had to stop and think about where I was. It was surreal.”
During the next 10 years, she took positions including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s press secretary, and she worked on the presidential campaigns of Al Gore, John Kerry and Barack Obama.
Most recently, she served as press secretary for U.S. Commerce Department Secretary Gary Locke, and then as deputy director of public affairs for the department. Last fall, she spent two months in Beijing as Locke’s senior adviser assisting with his transition process after he was appointed U.S. Ambassador to China.
While working for Clinton, Shah met her husband, Pete Selfridge, currently the director of advance and operations at the White House. The two began dating while they worked for Kerry’s campaign in 2004 and married in Los Angeles in 2007.
In February, Shah joined APCO Worldwide in Washington, D.C. as a vice president. There, she is building the firm’s competencies in international trade, intellectual property and technology.
Throughout her career, Shah has taken a lesson from her background and her parent’s dedication to service.
“I wanted to work in the U.S. government and be a part of the political system to have the opportunity to give back to this country and make a difference.”