A few months later, Ali was elected president of Vanderbilt University's Student Government Association, making her the school's first Arab-Muslim student body president.
Fast forward a decade. Ali has graduated from Vanderbilt and Vanderbilt Law School. She has been an associate with the law firm Hogan Lovells, where she helped set up the firm's Abu Dhabi office. In 2010, she was named a White House Fellow. (Somewhere along the way she also found time to be a three-time Southeastern Tae Kwon Do Black Belt Champion.) In May 2012, Ali, now 30, was appointed international director of Tennessee's Department of Economic and Community Development (ECD).
A small but vocal number of conservatives and Tea Party activists in Tennessee and elsewhere have strongly opposed Ali's appointment. Resolutions recently passed by several county Republican organizations have criticized Republican Gov. Bill Haslam for the appointment, and have ridiculously painted Ali as some kind of sleeper agent.
"One of the latest Executive Service Employees has included Samar Ali, an expert in Shariah Compliant Finance which is one of the many ways Islamic terrorism is funded," a resolution passed by the Stewart County Republican Party reads in part, according to a copy obtained by The Tennessean. Ali's attackers have focused on a line in her bio that describes how she counseled Hogan Lovells clients in Shariah compliant transactions -- a common practice in business dealings in the Middle East. A June blog post at the Frank Gaffney-led Center for Security Policy -- a hub of Islamophobia --said that, after Ali's appointment, "it is reasonable to expect that the financial jihadists will soon be targeting the Volunteer state for infiltration and influence operations."
State officials, including Haslam, have stood by Ali. Clint Brewer, assistant commissioner for communications for ECD, told TPM earlier this week that Ali is "one of the brightest leaders of her generation from this state." And some of the people who know Ali best told TPM they are shocked by the smears.
"I think she's one of the real stars who has graduated from Vanderbilt during the now 21 years I've been here," David Weintraub, an associate professor of astronomy at Vanderbilt who served on a university committee with Ali, told TPM. "She's a real mover and shaker. Doing all the things all of us would love young people in the country now to be doing. Positive things for our communities. Working with people. Bringing them together."
According to Liz Katkin, a former partner at Hogan Lovells who was Ali's boss in Abu Dhabi, Ali spoke often about her desire to go back to Tennessee. Ali grew up in the small town of Waverly, population 4,028, about an hour and a half drive west of Nashville. Her mother immigrated to the United States from Syria when she was 26. Her father left the West Bank when he was 17. Both are doctors.
"Samar is one of the most energetic, enthusiastic, hard-working people I have ever met, and she is a natural born leader," Katkin said in an email. "[She] has a genuine love of helping people, and building bridges between different cultures."
According to Marissa Shrum, who attended Vanderbilt with Ali and has kept in touch since graduation, Ali has a passion for connecting with people across boundaries, "no matter who they are or where they come from."
Greg Smith, a Nashville lawyer who employed Ali while she was in law school, said the recent attacks make no sense to him.
"People who oppose Samar's involvement with our state government have to be people who don't know her," Smith told TPM. "Because if you know her, you're going to appreciate the talents that she can bring to us."
Ali declined to be interviewed for this article.