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Overcoming imposter syndrome: Deesha Dyer's rise from community college in Philly to the Obama White House

Philadelphia native Deesha Dyer's rise from community college to the Obama White House
Philadelphia native Deesha Dyer's rise from community college to the Obama White House 03:56

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- If you're looking for inspiration that embodies Philly tenacity and grit, look no further than the story of Deesha Dyer. Her journey is a path that even Dyer never imagined.

"As a hip hop girl from Philly who had no degree, the Obamas were like, 'We like you,'" said, Dyer referring to former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. "For me, I thought I didn't belong."

It's why sharing her story through her book tour while she's back home in Philadelphia is so meaningful. Her memoir, called "Undiplomatic: How My Attitude Created the Best Kind of Trouble," is available now.

Deesha Dyer with the Obamas
Deesha Dyer with the Obamas Obama White House

I met her recently at Coffee Cream & Dreams in Fairmount to talk about the new release.

"Right down the street from here at Community College of Philadelphia is where I was going to school part time," Dyer recalled. "And when I got the White House internship application, I looked at it like, 'I'm probably not qualified for this.'"

At the time, Dyer, who previously dropped out of college, was 31 years old, juggling a full-time job, community college courses and multiple side hustles. But she still applied.

So when Dyer beat out hundreds of applicants to land a spot in the White House intern class of 2009, she was stunned.

And that's when she says the imposter syndrome really set in, a feeling that went on to inspire "Undiplomatic."

"Undiplomatic: How My Attitude Created the Best Kind of Trouble" by Deesha Dyer
"Undiplomatic: How My Attitude Created the Best Kind of Trouble" by Deesha Dyer CBS Philadelphia

"A lot of people struggle with it," she said. "For me, I felt that way the entire time at the White House. And so I'm like, I'm gonna be honest about it, and entertain people along the way."

In the book, Dyer talks about how, without connections or a degree, she got noticed by the Obamas by just being herself.

"Who says we aren't as good as the next person? Aren't you deserving and worth all the promotions, the accolades and the good things that happen to us?" Dyer writes in her book.

"That really was the catalyst for everything," she explained.

But Dyer didn't only score the internship. She went on to land a full-time job with the Obamas, got promoted multiple times and eventually landed the coveted position of White House Social Secretary. In the role, she was responsible for executing major events, from state dinners to visits with dignitaries.

"I didn't really want the job because I didn't think that I could get it," she admitted, adding that she didn't want to disappoint herself. "So when I actually had the meeting with Mrs. Obama, and she was actually giving me the job, she asked me, you know, do you have the confidence for this role? And I said yes. But obviously, I do not, but I will find it."  

Deesha Dyer with Pope Francis and President Barack Obama
Deesha Dyer with Pope Francis and President Barack Obama Obama White House

Dyer spent the next eight years at the White House, where she infused her Philly flair into her work and helped host everyone from Pope Francis to Philadelphia acts like the Roots, Jill Scott and DJ Jazzy Jeff.

"I just used everything in my toolkit of people I knew, places I knew, museums, artists and kids and DJs," she said. "I was like, I'm getting everybody in here."

Back in Philadelphia, Dyer's still working to create opportunities as co-founder of the nonprofit, which works to tackle racial disparities in global travel by giving teen girls opportunities to study abroad.

"It's amazing, I love coming home," she said.  

Dyer says through her work, she aims to pour into young girls the importance of self-worth and betting on themselves, lessons that have come full circle for Dyer herself.

"Ultimately, I want people to not feel alone," she said, "and inspired and uplifted and laugh a bit as well."

The book tour for "Undiplomatic" already made a stop in Philadelphia on April 30, but has more upcoming events in New York, Washington, D.C., Denver, San Diego and other cities.

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