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Obama at Oxy

President Obama’s time at Occidental College had a profound impact on his life.

It was at Occidental that he first began to take the world of books and ideas seriously, and was awakened to the notion that he could make a difference in the world. The classes he took, the lasting relationships he formed with professors and friends, and his experiences outside of the classroom all helped shape the person he was to become. As he says, Oxy “started giving me a sense of what a purposeful life might look like.”

Barack Obama in Occidental College’s Clapp Library. Photo Credit: Thomas Grauman.
Barack Obama in Occidental College’s Clapp Library. Photo Credit: Thomas Grauman.

Inspired in the Classroom

Like many students, Barack Obama arrived on campus without a clear idea of what his future might be. It was in the late Roger Boesche’s classroom that he found his inspiration. “Your classroom is where my interest in politics began,” he wrote to his old mentor in 2016 when the Arthur G. Coons Professor in the History of Ideas announced his retirement.

Boesche’s political theory classes and his knack for making the complex comprehensible made a deep impression. “You helped instill passion for ideas, not only in me, but in the generations of students who found in your courses inspiration that would guide them forward,” Obama wrote. “Posing questions that have challenged societies through the ages, your teaching and research remind us of the importance of constant inquiry and debate, lessons that are the core of our democracy, and that I’ve drawn on throughout my life, particularly in this Office.”

During Boesche’s 2009 visit to the Oval Office, Obama introduced his old professor to his staff by saying, “Professor Boesche taught me everything I know about politics,” adding with a laugh, “But he gave me a 'B' on a paper!” Boesche later explained his side of the story: “He said, ‘Why did I get this grade?’ and I said, ‘Well, frankly, I think you’re really brilliant, but you don’t work hard enough.’”

President Barack Obama with Occidental College Professor Roger Boesche in the White House
President Barack Obama with Occidental College Professor Roger Boesche. Photo Credit: Mandy Boesche.

Something Larger than Myself

The anti-apartheid movement was at its height when President Obama was a student at Occidental. As he recalls, “I started reading more seriously and more deeply about social justice issues and became more engaged with issues of social justice.” Occidental was the place where he made his first political speech, on Feb. 18, 1981, as part of a movement to persuade the Occidental Board of Trustees to divest the College of its investments in South Africa.

“I just became much more aware that I was frittering my life away and that if I really wanted to make my mark, it wasn’t going to be because I was pursuing my own selfish aims,” Obama remembers. “There was going to be something that I connected up to that was larger than myself.” As a result, by the time he graduated from college, “I was possessed with this crazy idea that I was going to work at the grassroots level to bring about change.”

Anti-Apartheid rally on Occidental College Campus
Anti-Apartheid rally on Occidental College Campus, February 18, 1981. Photo Credit: Thomas Grauman.