Oxy Remembers "Barry" Obama '83

Almost 30 years ago, he was a freshman from Honolulu living in Haines Hall, playing pick-up basketball and developing a reputation as a campus activist.

Today, Barack Obama ’83 is a Democratic presidential hopeful, and the national media have discovered that he spent his first two years of college at Occidental. "It’s a wonderful, small liberal arts college," he told the Los Angeles Times in a Jan. 29 news story. "The professors were diverse and inspiring. I ended up making some lifelong friendships there, and those first two years really helped me grow up."

Drawing on interviews with faculty, alumni, and excerpts from Obama’s 1995 autobiography, Dreams From My Father, the Times story described him as a serious student, a good athlete, and a man of principle who made friends with students from across the political spectrum.

"He came off as a serious, articulate, intelligent young guy," Eric Newhall, professor of English and comparative literary studies, was quoted as saying. "I didn’t say, ‘Here is presidential timber,’ but I said to myself, ‘I like our student body because they are going out to do interesting things.’"

According to Obama, who then went by the name of Barry, it was his involvement in the South African divestment movement at Occidental that first set him on his current path. "I got into politics at Occidental," he said in a 2004 interview with Occidental magazine. "I made a conscious decision to go into public policy."

It was a decision that eventually led him to transfer to Columbia University – "the idea of being in New York was very appealing," he says – where he received his bachelor’s degree, and later to Harvard Law School, where he became the first African-American editor of the Harvard Law Review.

This is not Occidental’s first brush with presidential politics. Reporters also descended on campus when Jack Kemp ’57, former pro football quarterback and Republican congressman, ran for president in 1988 and as a vice presidential candidate in 1996.