In September, President Obama shared some advice he had given college-bound Malia: Don’t worry too much about which school you choose — advice that the rest of the world has completely ignored.
The where-will-she-go fever hadn’t died down since Malia made headlines in 2014 by wearing a Stanford University T-shirt on a bike ride with her dad. The wild guessing game was immediately on, with first-family watchers piecing together clues and parsing her visits to more than a dozen colleges.
Would she attend any of her parents’ alma maters? Head to California to get a slice of West Coast living? Or stay closer to the District, where the post-White House Obamas will park until Sasha, 14, graduates from high school?
At times, Malia’s road to college felt a lot like basketball superstar Lebron James’s massively hyped 2010 NBA decision. But on Sunday morning, there was no booming announcer declaring over the loudspeaker: “And Malia has decided to take her talents to…” Instead, the White House emailed reporters a two-sentence news release on the traditional May 1 deadline to declare acceptance.
Although the president and the first lady adopted a code of silence about Malia’s specific choice, they did publicly share the advice they gave their eldest as she navigated the college-admissions process. According to the Obamas the topic was a regular part of the family’s nightly dinner conversation.
“The one thing I’ve been telling my daughters is that I don’t want them to choose a name,” Michelle Obama told the editors of Seventeen magazine in an article published in April. “I don’t want them to think, ‘Oh, I should go to these top schools.’ We live in a country where there are thousands of amazing universities. So the question is: What’s going to work for you?”
The first lady, a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, was echoing advice similar to what the president, a graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law, said he had given Malia. “Just because it’s not some name-brand, famous, fancy school doesn’t mean that you’re not going to get a great education there,” Obama told a group of high-schoolers in September.
The White House, which has closely guarded the details of Malia and Sasha’s comings and goings, had no further comment on Malia’s college choice or why she has decided to take a “gap year,” a sabbatical of sorts between graduating from high school and heading off to college.
The first daughter’s standardized test scores and grade-point average have not been released. Thus far there is no official word on just what Malia, who turns 18 this summer, plans to do during her gap year, but her interest in film is widely known. (She has interned for the CBS series “Extant” and HBO’s “Girls.”) In the past, the Obamas have described their firstborn as scholarly — an “avid reader,” her mother said; the kind of student who was unhappy with average grades, her father noted.
The bar for Malia’s and her sister’s behavior has always been high. As the first children to grow up in the White House during the age of social media, Michelle Obama has warned her daughters of the danger of a “bratty” moment being caught on video, shared with millions and shaping their public images without their control.
In the rare moments that Malia’s image has spread on social media, the spontaneous snapshots have been relatively innocuous. A photo she sent a friend wearing a branded T-shirt for the rap collective Pro Era was shared widely in 2015, as was a 2014 photo of her at the Lollapalooza music festival in Chicago.
After the image surfaced, the country’s collective willingness to protect the privacy of the president’s daughters was made evident in an editorial titled “Sorry, Malia Obama” that ran in the Brown Daily Herald, the student newspaper at Brown University.
“It is a shame that Malia was unable to visit Brown and enjoy herself at a party without several news headlines coming out about it the next day,” the editorial read.
“Malia did not choose to grow up in the White House, and it is unfair that everything she does at just 17 years old is subject to such harsh scrutiny,” continued the editorial, also acknowledging that “the chances of her selecting Brown have probably decreased since the publication of those articles.”
There’s no way of telling whether the tweets and Instagram photos trailing Malia’s well-documented college tour actually affected her decision. But at a recent White House event, the first lady noted that the fishbowl of living in Washington was wearing on her daughters. Michelle Obama said, “The older they got, the less excited they were about living in a museum, and they just wanted to live in a regular home.”
Malia will get her chance — sort of — when she becomes a “regular” college freshman next year, and, yes, there’s an asterisk. When she settles on campus, Malia will most likely be accompanied by Secret Service officers, who would then continue to be responsible for protecting her (although for now it is unclear whether Obama will extend the Secret Service protection to his daughters before he leaves office).
But there is one rite of passage for every newly minted adult that the first lady is certain Malia will pass: doing her own laundry. Mrs. Obama made sure of that.
“I don’t want her to be that kid who is 15 or 16, and [she’s saying], ‘Oh, I don’t know how to do laundry.’ I would cringe if she became that kid,” said the first lady in a 2011 interview with Oprah Winfrey, emphasizing that she wanted both of her daughters to learn how to handle “their own business.”
“And you’re not living in the White House forever,” said Mrs. Obama. “You’re going to college.”