He didn’t graduate from Occidental College. But the liberal arts school in Los Angeles still claims Barack Obama as its most famous student and is not shy about highlighting the formative role it played in his political development from 1979 to 1981, decades before he became the 44th president of the United States.
Occidental recently announced the launch of the Barack Obama Scholars Program, which aims to provide four-year scholarships for top students “committed to the public good,” according to a college news release. The scholarship will cover tuition, room and board (which now costs more than $67,000 a year), as well as summer travel and other expenses, enabling recipients to graduate without loans. It also will provide mentoring from faculty and others, including former Obama administration officials and even some of Obama’s friends. Jeh Johnson, who was homeland security secretary in Obama’s second term, serves on an advisory council for the program.
Occidental President Jonathan Veitch said the program will support two students next fall and grow to five per class. It will recruit scholars from all backgrounds, with emphasis on those who are first-generation college students, military veterans or community college transfers. The college, with about 2,000 students, has so far raised $7 million to endow the program, Veitch said, and is seeking to grow that total to $40 million.
“My years at Occidental College sparked my interest in social and political causes, and filled me with the idea that my voice could make a difference,” Obama said in the Sept. 27 news release.
Obama is said to have delivered his first public political speech at an anti-apartheid rally on the Occidental campus on Feb. 18, 1981. The future president transferred to Columbia University in New York later that year and earned his bachelor’s degree there in 1983.
In 2010, Obama said that two political theory courses taught by longtime Occidental professor Roger Boesche “sparked my general interest in politics,” according to an account in Occidental Magazine. Boesche died this year.
In a visit last week to The Washington Post, Veitch said Occidental is proud of its connection to Obama and wants to build on his legacy. “Sometimes, it matters more where you start than where you end up,” Veitch said. Occidental “had an impression on him, to be sure. … It’s not every liberal arts college that educates a president.”