Occidental, Obama, and the Road to Public Service

When Barack Obama ’83 became the Democratic presidential nominee, it was the latest step in a historic career of public service that began almost 30 years ago on the Occidental College campus.

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."

The significance of the two years the Illinois senator spent at Occidental before transferring to Columbia has become a theme in much of the reporting about Obama. "What seems clear is that Mr. Obama’s time at Occidental from 1979 to 1981 -- where he describes himself arriving as ‘alienated’ -- would ultimately set him on a course to public service," the New York Times reported earlier this year.

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 a theme he revisited in his May 18 commencement speech at Wesleyan University.

"During my first two years of college, perhaps because of the values my mother had taught me – values of hard work, honesty, empathy and compassion – finally resurfaced after a long hibernation; or perhaps because of the example of wonderful teachers and lasting friends, I began to notice a world beyond myself," he said.

"I became active in the movement to oppose the apartheid regime of South Africa. I began following the debates in this country about poverty and health care. So that by the time I graduated from college, I was possessed with this crazy idea that I was going to work at the grassroots level to bring about change."

It was at Occidental where he stopped being called "Barry" and became Barack Obama, Newsweek pointed out in its March 31 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'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."

Barack Obama '83 and Sara El Amine '07It was a policy class that got Sara El Amine ’07 "to thinking where I could intersect with policy on the highest level" – a thought process that eventually led her to become one of several Occidental students and alumni working for the Obama campaign. "Making sure the right person gets elected as the next president of the United States is the highest calling right now," El Amine said. Fellow campaign staffer Brian McGrane ’06 agrees: "It’s about time we had an Occidental alum in the White House."

It’s not the first time an Occidental graduate has run for the country’s highest office. Former Congressman and NFL quarterback Jack Kemp ’57 ran in the 1988 Republican presidential primaries and was the Republican vice presidential nominee in 1996. "I got a good education: history, the sciences," Kemp said at the time. "You just can’t get out of Oxy without learning something. It’s just a very good school.