A roar that could be heard all across the Occidental College campus erupted Nov. 4 when television commentators declared Barack Obama ’83 had been elected the 44th president of the United States -- the country’s first African-American chief executive.
Students gathered in Haines Hall, where Obama lived in a ground-floor room his freshman year, and packed into Samuelson Pavilion broke into cheers when the announcement was made -- a moment captured by a local television crew.
"We are proud that an Occidental alumnus will be serving in the country’s highest office," said Occidental President Robert A. Skotheim. "Barack Obama is the latest expression of Occidental’s long history of public service that has produced such distinguished leaders as Robert Finch, Class of 1947, Jack Kemp, Class of 1957, and Rear Admiral Marsha Johnson Evans, Class of 1968."
Kemp, a presidential candidate in 1988 and a vice-presidential nominee in 1996, served as one of Sen. John McCain’s chief economic advisors and barnstormed through the key states of Ohio and Florida during the final days of the campaign urging voters to support his old friend.
Although Obama transferred to Columbia University in 1981 at the end of his sophomore year, the significance of the two years he spent at Occidental was a theme that ran through much of the reporting about his candidacy.
"Much has been made in this presidential campaign, both good and bad, of Obama’s Ivy League pedigree, his bachelor's degree from Columbia University, and his law degree from Harvard," the Boston Globe reported. "But it is during the two years Obama spent at Occidental, a small liberal arts school in Los Angeles, that he started on the path that has led to the Democratic presidential nomination."
"Oxy, as it is affectionately known, nurtured his transformation," said the Globe. "By the end of his sophomore year, he was on his way to becoming a self-assured, purpose-driven scholar plotting a career in public service."
"It's an indescribable feeling right now," Obama campaign worker Katie deMocker ’10 said in a telephone interview from Arizona. "I couldn't be more proud. Before when I told people I went to Oxy, and that it was a liberal arts college, they didn't seem to know what it meant. Now when I tell people that Obama went to Oxy, their eyes light up. I can't think of a better representative of our school than Barack Obama."
"I think this whole election has put Oxy on the map, but more importantly, Barack Obama and his values and principles are from Oxy," said Tessa D'Arcangelew '10 from the Obama campaign in Virginia. "I think his win gives a lot of hope to the Oxy students who share his values and beliefs and want to make the world a better place -- that they can make a difference with their lives."
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Obama described Occidental as "a wonderful, small liberal arts college. The professors were diverse and inspiring. I ended up making some lifelong friendships there, and those first two years really helped me grow up."
It was at Occidental where he stopped being called "Barry" and became Barack Obama, Newsweek pointed out in its account of Obama’s formative years that featured his black-and-white freshman photo on the cover. "It was when I made a conscious decision: I want to grow up," he told the magazine.
Occidental continues to influence Obama today, albeit indirectly: both the New York Times and Washington Post report that the president-elect’s reading during the final days of the campaign included the Pulitzer Prize-winning Ghost Wars by Steve Coll ’80, the former Post managing editor who currently is a staff writer for New Yorker magazine and an Occidental trustee.
Occidental's role in Obama's career has led to a new focus on the transformative power of a liberal arts education, a subject Teagle Foundation President Robert Connor addressed on his blog. In a recent commentary aimed at overseas readers, journalist Tom Plate cited Occidental as an "iconic exemplar of the American search for the leadership ideal in education ... because it regularly shows up in the top small-college rating lists and because among its most prominent former students is Barack Obama." After two years "in the cauldron of change marked by intense courses in literature, arts, philosophy and social science, the student found himself as Barack, with all its implications, not as Barry."
Obama is only the second U.S. president to have attended a small liberal arts college west of the Rockies, the first being Richard Nixon of Whittier College. Eleven other presidents attended liberal arts colleges, including William McKinley (Allegheny), Woodrow Wilson (Davidson, before transferring to Princeton) and Ronald Reagan (Eureka).