Retracing Obama’s Legacy

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Author: Tyler Kearn and Aidan Lewis

There is very little physical evidence of Barack Obama’s time as a student at Occidental. However, Obama did not attend Oxy without leaving a trace.

Obama was at Oxy for two years, from fall 1979 to spring 1981, and it seems that all he has left behind are two poems that were published the literary magazine, a grainy yearbook photograph of a man with an afro in Haines hall, and the high school headshot he submitted with his application (which has since graced the cover of Newsweek). Yet, there are many people who have memories of the President-elect and, while the school has changed a great deal in 27 years, his Occidental experience seems to have been similar in many ways to the Oxy experience today.

What Life was Like for Obama at Oxy

Barack Obama lived in Haines Hall his first year, in the Annex room A104 (which is currently unoccupied). A plaque is being made to go next to the door. His sophomore year, Obama lived off-campus.

Kenneth Sulzer, a member of the class of ’82 and a trustee of the college, lived directly across the hall in Haines from Obama, and describes what it was like living there at that time.

“We lived in triples, so it was crowded,” Sulzer said. “We spent a lot of time hanging out in the hallway, so we got to know each other. There was a little alcove there with a couch, it’s still there. People played music loud.”

This description probably feels very familiar to anyone who has had the opportunity to live in the Haines Annex. Of course, there were some differences between the Haines of then and the Haines of today.”There just weren’t as many rules about dorm living as there are now,” Sulzer said, “If there was an alcohol restriction in the dorms, I wasn’t aware of it. I get the sense that it was a more active, social atmosphere . . . I have some female friends who lived on the floor above us that go, ‘Oh yeah, you guys were the wild guys.'”

Sulzer said that the atmosphere of the dorm allowed everybody to get to know each other pretty well, and that they had many conversations about all manner of topics. “For that time, the hallway was actually pretty diverse racially. There were a lot of athletes,” Sulzer said.

Obama was not the rowdiest or loudest person in the hall. “Obama was a freshman and my roommates were sophomores. Like most freshmen, he was kind of taking it all in,” Sulzer said.

Outside of the Haines Annex and classes, Obama would spend his hours at the usual Oxy hangouts of that time. The student quad was the place to be back then.

“We used to hang out on the quad…sitting on the grass out on the quad and checking each other out,” Sulzer said. For meals, there were a few favorite spots as well. “We’d go eat at the Union [now Johnson Student Center], eat at Casa Bianca,” Sulzer said. “My roommate and Obama used to like going there. He tells me Obama liked the pineapple pizza, which reminded him of Hawaii.”

Obama’s Academics

However rowdy life in Haines may have been, by all accounts Barack Obama was a serious student. He seemed to be particularly interested in politics and literature classes.

Anne Howells, Professor Emeritus, who retired from the Oxy faculty in 2005, had Obama in her Introduction to Literary Analysis class in winter 1981. “This was an introductory course for students interested in going on to take more advanced courses in literature,” Howells said. “It asked students to do a limited amount of reading, carefully, and to write a lot. The class met in Swan 100 . . . He spoke well in class and wrote very well, with flare and concision.” Howells penned a letter of recommendation for Obama to help him transfer from Oxy to Columbia.

Sulzer shared a politics class with Obama taught by current Occidental Professor Roger Boesche. He said that, with the exception of computers, classes then were not very different from classes today. “Professor Boesche got up there and he lectured,” Sulzer said. “Other than adding contemporary context [like Reganomics]…at some point, the basics are very similar.” Sulzer added that the class they shared would have been in Johnson Hall.

Boesche is nothing but positive about Obama as his student. “Barack Obama became a serious student at Occidental, brilliant in the classroom,” Boesche said.Obama’s records and transcript are sealed and confidential-they will only be made public if he gives permission-so it is unknown exactly how he fared in his classes. However, there is no question that he did well.

Additionally, Obama was nominated for a Truman Scholarship, a competitive national award given to people who are looking to go into a career in public service. Obama did not go on to win the Truman, but Occidental will only nominate candidates who they believe are very strong and compare well with other applicants.

Obama transferred to Columbia University, a very prestigious school with challenging admissions requirements, after his sophomore year.

Obama’s Involvement on Campus

Obama may have been at Oxy for only two years, but he still managed to get involved on campus. Feast, the Occidental literary magazine at that time, published two of his poems in the spring of 1981. These now reside in the Library’s Special Collections section, and the Oxy Weekly reprinted them last year. The article, which includes both of Obama’s poems, can be found on the Oxy Weekly Web site (www.oxyweekly.com).

It was at Occidental that Obama gained a real interest in sociopolitical issues; his nascent capacity for eloquent rhetoric made him a leader in several student-led activist efforts, including an anti-apartheid coalition and demonstrations against U.S. involvement in Central America and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

ECLS Professor Eric Newhall said that South African apartheid was the major issue of the 1980s. “It was the issue that galvanized a lot of student activism,” Newhall said.

Obama’s role in such causes convinced Newhall of his commitment to global justice. “Even as a young person,” Newhall said, “he had a serious interest in what was going on around the world…I honestly believe that his background and experience are going to make him one of [America’s] best diplomats.”

Obama also had an athletic life on campus. Whether Obama played JV basketball at Occidental is a topic of debate, but Obama certainly played pickup games. Newhall recalls first being introduced to Obama through his younger brother, Brian, who was on a pick-up basketball team with the future President-elect. “He was quick-way quicker than average,” Newhall said about Obama on the court, and “he recognized that it’s a team game.”

Newhall asserted he was a formidable player himself in 1979, and played against Obama on several occasions. “I’ve scored some baskets on the President of the United States,” Newhall said. “Not a lot of Lit. professors can say that.”

Obama eventually transitioned from focusing on the court to the classroom. “The greatest contribution Occidental has made to American democracy was to help Barack Obama decide that his future wasn’t in basketball,” Newhall said.

Bringing Obama Back to Oxy

Sulzer believes that Obama wants to return to Oxy at some point, but that his schedule prevents him from doing so at present. “I think he’ll come, but he’s the President-elect, and he’ll decide when he’s ready,” Sulzer said.

In the meantime, the school is making every effort to get the President-elect back to his alma mater. The Office of Communications recently sent the Obama family a package full of Oxy merchandise. According to Assistant Director of Communications Samantha Bonar ’90, this included Snoopy/Oxy tees, pom-poms, and Oxy teddy bears for Malia and Sasha; an Oxy hoodie sweatshirt (the one that has polka-dot letters “OXY” on the front) and sweatpants for Michelle (the ones that say “OXY” on the butt); and Oxy basketball shorts, an Oxy sweatshirt, and an Oxy Basketball t-shirt for Barack. Even the family pet received a gift. “We
included an Occidental leash for their new puppy,” Bonar said.

The administration is optimistic about the chances of Obama returning to Oxy. Jim Tranquada, Director of Communications, believes it is inevitable. “Eventually, he’s going to come back to campus. It’s certainly our intent to make that happen,” Tranquada said. “It’s only a matter of time.”

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