LOS ANGELES - When a reserved Hawaiian prep school graduate named Barry Obama arrived on the well-manicured campus of Occidental College in the fall of 1979, sophomore Mark Parsons gained more than a new dorm mate. He gained a smoking buddy.
Parsons, who hailed from white, working-class Philadelphia, and Obama, from a multicultural childhood in Honolulu and Indonesia, forged a bond over those stolen interludes that only cigarette smokers know.
"I smoke like this because I want to keep my weight down," Obama once confided, Parsons recalled. "After I get married, I'll stop and just get real fat."
Obama ultimately chose another course. He began, in his first two years of college from 1979 to 1981, to overcome a sense of aimlessness that was pointing toward just such a flabby, undisciplined future. By the end of his sophomore year, he was on his way to becoming a self-assured, purpose-driven scholar plotting a career in public service.
Much has been made in this presidential campaign, both good and bad, of Obama's Ivy League pedigree - his bachelor's degree from Columbia University, and his law degree from Harvard, where he led the prestigious Law Review. But it is during the two years Obama spent at Occidental, a small liberal arts school in Los Angeles, that he started on the path that has led to the Democratic presidential nomination.
Oxy, as it is affectionately known, nurtured his transformation. He started playing basketball less so he could read and study more. After shying away from activism early in his college career, he joined an antiapartheid campaign. He came to terms with his identity, eventually ditching his nickname, Barry, and embracing Barack. And then, yearning for a bigger stage, he engineered a transfer to Columbia.
"The sort of talk was, you know, 'What made him get so serious all the sudden?' " said Kent Goss, an Occidental classmate who played basketball with him.
Partly it was the sobering state of the world and the nation - the Iran hostage crisis and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the grave concerns over energy and inflation, and the wave of antigovernment conservatism that swept through California in 1978 as the precursor to the Reagan revolution. Partly it was a pivotal professor who helped tease out his potential. And partly it was a desire to assert more control over the arc of his life.
Searching for foothold
Internally, as Obama writes in his 1995 memoir, "Dreams from My Father," he was searching for a foothold - alienated, struggling to understand his biracial identity, fearful of fulfilling a stereotype. "Junkie. Pothead. That's where I'd been headed: the final, fatal role of the young would-be black man," he writes.
Obama was at Occidental when the solidarity of the civil-rights era was breaking down and more complicated issues such as affirmative action and South African divestment had replaced the themes of voting rights and desegregation. Friends wonder whether the racial polarization of the era only stoked Obama's fears for his future.
With all of this churning in his head, Obama made a conscious decision while at Occidental to accelerate his maturation. And with laser-like focus, he set out to do it.
"He was in a hurry," Parsons said.
Obama's high school diploma, from the prestigious Punahou School in Honolulu, belied his lower-middle-class upbringing. He attended Occidental on scholarship.
But to college friends, he was just another preppy freshman wearing trendy Ocean Pacific apparel.
"When he surfaced as this national figure, I can only remember him wearing O.P. shorts and flip-flops," said Simeon Heninger, who lived near Obama in the dorm.
His preppy visage was a liability on the basketball court. Obama had played forward on Punahou's 1979 state championship team but that held little currency in Los Angeles, where his new friends committed hard fouls in pickup games and ribbed him with quips such as "Welcome to LA," Goss recalled.
"We were giving him a lot of grief about being from Hawaii and being from Punahou, and he was giving it back," Goss said.
Obama was comforted to find Hawaiian pizza (with pineapple and ham) at an off-campus joint called Casa Bianca. Like many of his friends, he smoked a lot of cigarettes, sometimes pot. He was, friends and classmates say, interested in forming genuine relationships, someone "skilled at finding a connection and making that an initial foundation of friendship," said John Boyer, who lived across the hall.
He became a frequent participant in bull sessions on politics, life, and culture that took place in the hallways, alcoves, and on the stoops of his dorm, Haines Hall. He was self-confident but rarely sought the soapbox.
"He was not a philosopher king sitting there opining on the world for the rest of us as we sat there open-mouthed," said Ken Sulzer, another friend from Haines.
Boyer added, "Barry would kind of hang back, and there would be some less sophisticated people who would be yelling their point of view or argument. And Barry would kind of come in and just kind of part the waters. He would bring clarity that would address both sides of the argument and substantiate his point."
Friends' and classmates' memories of Obama as an 18- and 19-year-old at times differ in tone from the self-portrait he renders in "Dreams from My Father," in which he recounts a corrosive apathy. He writes of one late, booze-fueled night: "Upstairs, I could hear someone flushing a toilet, walking across the room. Another insomniac, probably, listening to his life tick away." He felt, he says, "as indifferent about college as toward most everything else."
While Obama was experiencing these self-doubts, they weren't always evident to his fellow students, many of whom remember him as, if not the hardest worker, a serious person with an intellectual curiosity and maturity beyond his years.
"I didn't see him ever being on the fringe. He seemed very centered and settled," said Eric Moore, a close college friend.
Obama had a diverse peer group and moved easily among students of all backgrounds - a vestige, perhaps, of his multicultural upbringing in Hawaii. He hung out with black friends, but not exclusively, as other African-American students did, according to classmates. Moore, who is black, recalled going to jazz shows and to the beach in Santa Monica with Obama. Parsons and Boyer, who are white, shared fond memories of trips with him to Casa Bianca, if not the Hawaiian pizza.
"He had friends on both sides of the ledger," said Louis Hook, an upperclassman who ran in the same black social circles.
Obama's determination to bridge that divide caused him some friction with some blacks and whites, Hook said. "You find people on both sides who don't appreciate it," he said.
That may be partly because Obama was not always willing to accept social orthodoxies. Parsons said Obama was troubled, for example, by the way black students clung together.
"I remember talking about the vicious circle between self-segregation and segregation imposed upon you," Parsons said. "I could tell that bothered him."
Indeed, despite his soul-searching, Obama seems to have had an easier time assimilating than other black students.
Earl Chew, who is the basis, at least in part, for the character "Marcus" in Obama's memoir - a close friend and black student leader - was quoted in the college paper in January 1981 as saying, "Coming here was hard for me. A lot of things that I knew as a black student - that I knew as a black, period - weren't accepted on this campus."
Because Obama uses pseudonyms and composite characters in his book, it is difficult to identify and locate people, such as Chew, whom he portrays as central figures in this chapter of his life. His campaign does not disclose the students' identities and declined a request to interview Obama.
Despite its cloistered setting on a hilltop in north Los Angeles, Occidental was abuzz with political and social activism. Protesters held candlelight walks against nuclear arms proliferation and railed against President Carter's reinstitution of draft registration. There were speeches by everyone from conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly to women's rights advocate Gloria Steinem. In the 1980 presidential race, students formed coalitions for Carter, Edward Kennedy, independent John Anderson, and Ronald Reagan.
Students also pushed for more diversity at the college, which at the time was overwhelmingly white. Leaders of a black student group are quoted in a 1980 story in the college newspaper as saying there were just 71 African-Americans out of 1,600 students, and just two black professors.
In his sophomore year, Obama joined a leading cause on campus, an antiapartheid campaign to get Occidental to divest from companies that did business in white-ruled South Africa. The culmination of his involvement was a speech he delivered at a campus protest, pegged to a meeting of the college trustees.
In his memoir, Obama says he spoke from the heart but quickly concluded afterward that the whole thing had been a "farce" play-acted by "amateurs." He said he reacted cynically when a friend, a woman he calls "Regina," praised his speech.
But Rebecca Rivera, a classmate and college activist who was also at the rally, remembers Obama having a markedly different reaction.
"The audience was rapt when he spoke. I remember telling him after, 'You are a really good speaker - obviously you have a lot to say. I wish you would get more involved,' " Rivera recalled. She said Obama's response was essentially, "When it's important, I do get involved." The implication, she said, was that a lot of what passed for campus activism he considered mere "Mickey Mouse stuff."
In the classroom, former professors and classmates said, Obama found a niche - as a student whose analytical ability, as expressed in classroom participation and writing assignments more than rigorous study, made him someone to be listened to.
"What I remember is all the number of questions he would ask - and they were all good questions," said Kathy Cooper-Ledesma, who, like Obama, concentrated in political science.
Anne Howells, a former English professor at Occidental, taught him in a literary analysis class, which dissected works such as "We Real Cool," Gwendolyn Brooks's scolding poem on the aimlessness of black youth.
"He was the kind of student that comes along and you say, 'Oh, I wish I had written that or thought of that,' " Howells said.
Obama's most influential professor was Roger Boesche, a political scientist who had Obama in two classes, one on American political thought, another on European political philosophy. Boesche remembers Obama as quiet and absorbed, not destined to be a "charismatic and brilliant orator."
"I didn't say, 'Oh, I knew he'd do that,' " said Boesche, contrasting him with more driven students he has taught. "They've got this powerful personality, they're interested in all the courses and ideas, and you start realizing they're going to do something special. He was gestating a little more slowly."
It surprises Boesche that Obama cites him as a mentor, but he figures Obama must have been soaking up much more than he let on. Boesche said he wonders, watching his former student on the campaign trail, whether he absorbed from his class the tenets of the American Populist movement of the 19th century, a bottom-up campaign for economic justice that brought whites and blacks together.
"Obama as an undergraduate, in my mind, demonstrated that he was a serious, talented, thoughtful person who had concerns beyond himself," said Eric Newhall, a humanities professor involved in the divestment campaign who also played basketball with Obama during "noon ball," lunchtime pickup games among faculty and students.
Until he arrived at Occidental, Obama's script had been largely written by others.
The unlikely union of his parents - his mother was a white Kansan, his father a black Kenyan - left him with a confused identity. Stereotypes defined him, or threatened to, in ways he never sought. His father, by leaving his family, left Obama to be brought up by a single mom. He said he was drawn to Occidental in the first place mainly by a girl he met in Hawaii who lived near the campus.
Obama's decision to leave Oxy after two years was a way of putting his hand on the wheel, a chance for reinvention. "There was a lot of stuff going on in me," he told Newsweek earlier this year. "By the end of that year at Occidental, I think I was starting to work it through, and I think part of the attraction of transferring was, it's hard to remake yourself around people who have known you for a long time."
When Obama was leaving Occidental, Parsons said, he was originally interested in doing a combined bachelor's degree-law degree program at Columbia, a fast-track option that suited his new sense of urgency. Ultimately, he picked a more conventional undergraduate degree program in political science.
Given how well Obama straddled the black and white worlds, Hook said, it came as a surprise that he was among the African-American students leaving Occidental. "That didn't make sense to me, because the other black students who were leaving were leaving because it wasn't black enough," Hook said. "He was comfortable with it."
But Obama was not comfortable with the future he envisioned for himself there. His appetite for knowledge of the wider world, expanded by Occidental's vibrant intellectual and political environment, grew so big the college could not longer sate it. "I sort of felt that he felt part of the program and part of the school his freshman year," Goss said. "I think he felt less that way as a sophomore."
Still, though Obama's official biographies have long skipped over his Occidental years, it is clear the college played an important role in his development.
He told a Wesleyan University commencement audience earlier this year that the values he learned from his mother - hard work, honesty, and empathy - resurfaced at Occidental "after a long hibernation," and he told the Occidental alumni magazine in 2004 that he became interested in politics and public policy while on campus.
"He wasn't talking about becoming the leader of the free world," said Heninger, Obama's friend from the dorm. "He was talking about, I felt, being a responsible citizen. A lot of us were like that at Oxy. You were kind of turned on to doing something with your life."
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