As we all know, a long time ago, way before he got elected president, Barack Obama went to Columbia. He graduated in 1983. He only spent his final two undergraduate years with us, though, because he began his collegiate career somewhere else. That place was Occidental. I visited Occidental recently while touring colleges with my younger sister. What did I discover? They're claiming him as their own!
It stands to reason that of the two schools, Occidental would place more weight on the Obama connection. Columbia lists numerous political heavyweights past and present as alums, stretching all the way back to the days of Alexander Hamilton and John Jay. Occidental's most famous political alum is probably Jack Kemp, former U.S. Representative from New York and 1996 Republican vice presidential nominee.
But this reasoning leaves out the unavoidable truth that Obama left Occidental. For Columbia. That brings us back to Occidental's marketing around Obama, which included numerous mentions during the tour, a display in the library lobby, and a brochure available in the admission office titled "Obama at Occidental: A Self-Guided Tour." You can see the cover of this brochure above. Inside are a dozen pages of pictures and prose fleshing out every last detail of Obama's connection to the school. And I mean every detail.
From the page about Obama's freshman dorm:
"We had a really good hallway; there were a lot of interesting folks," says [roommate Paul] Carpenter, whose family hosted Obama for Thanksgiving. "Barack was funny, smart, thoughtful, and well-liked," says Phil Boerner, '83, who lived across the hall.
Perhaps worth noting that Boerner also transferred to Columbia. Another student recalls a time he got an A on a political science paper and Obama beat him with an A-plus. When he wasn't studying, Barack used to hang out at "The Cooler," a hangout/coffee shop, and "it was there that Lisa Jack, '81, then an aspiring photographer, first met him in the spring of 1980 and asked the 'cute' freshman to pose for her as part of her photography class."
The gymnasium, too, was a major component of Barack's time at Occidental.
Obama was always conscious of what was going on around him, remembers Kent Goss '83, who played on the JV team his freshman year. "He saw the court well. He shared the ball. And he wasn't afraid to go to the hoop." Eric Newhall '67, professor of English and comparative literary studies, also played with the future president in those "noonball" games. "I think Occidental's greatest contribution to American politics lies in persuading Barack Obama that his future did not lie in basketball," Newhall says.
The other stops on the tour are the administrative plaza, on which Obama made his first political speech in February 1981 (arguing for divestment from South Africa), and a building in which Obama took a creative writing class during his sophomore year.
The end of the brochure brings no mention of the conclusion of Obama's Occidental career, just suggestions for further reading and a big map to aid a reader's tour of the locales described within. Flipping back to the beginning, one could argue that the introduction's mention of "the two years" Obama spent at Occidental, coupled with scattered references to his freshman and sophomore years, would allow a careful reader to deduce that Obama left and went somewhere else to graduate. But if you had no pre-existing knowledge of Obama's education? You would have an easy time assuming that Occidental was just... where he went to school.
It seems unlikely that Columbia is going to produce a brochure for visiting students on Obama's time at Columbia, and a display in the Butler lobby devoted to him is probably doubtful, too. So it looks as though we'll have to live with Occidental taking all the credit for the education of one Barack Hussein Obama, CC '83.
We should expect no less from a school that shares a mascot with Princeton.