Barack Obama

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Obama the Columbia undergrad, visiting Central Park

Barack Obama CC '83 was the 44th President of the United States. A former US Senator from Illinois, he is the first African-American to hold the nation's highest office.

Obama is the first attendee of Columbia College to occupy the Oval Office. Obama was also the first Columbia College alumnus to be nominated by a major modern party ticket, and the first CC alum to be a major party nominee since the Federalists nominated DeWitt Clinton in 1812.

He is the second Columbia alumnus to win a Nobel Peace Prize, after Nicholas Murray Butler in 1931. Theodore Roosevelt also won a Peace Prize.

Columbia years

Obama wearing Columbia t-shirt
Obama with his Pakistani friend Sohale Siddiqi in Obama's 109th St. apartment, 1981
The apartment building on 109th St. where Obama lived with Phil Boerner in 1981
Photo by Obama of his friend Phil Boerner in their apartment on 109th St., Fall 1981.
A more recent image of the Yorkville apartment on East 94th where Obama lived during most of his time at Columbia
Obama not looking very happy in the winter of 1981
Obama gets a visit from his grandparents during his Columbia years

Obama transferred to CC from Occidental College, which is even more rarely mentioned by the President, in the fall of 1981. At Occidental, Obama wrote, he had been into partying and drugs. He hoped the move to New York, where the cold weather would force him to stay inside and read,[1] would put him on a more serious track.


Columbia at that time barred transfer students from its limited supply of campus housing, so Obama lived off campus. He claims to have spent his first night sleeping in an alley near the corner of 109th and Amsterdam Avenue and washing with the homeless next to an open fire hydrant, as he had arrived too late to be let in to the apartment he had found, #3E, 142 W. 109th St., between Amsterdam and Columbus. The rent was $360.

The next day he moved into the apartment with fellow Occidental College transfer Phil Boerner. Boerner, who remained Obama's friend throughout his college years, describes the apartment as a third story walkup with a railroad layout and a missing doorbell. It had a walkthrough layout, and Boerner had to walk through Obama's room to get to his own. The heating frequently failed, one of the reasons Obama wound up spending so much time in Butler Library. At other times, the two roommates read their books under blankets. Their hot water was also irregular, and they often made use of the Columbia gym showers. They frequently hosted guests from their Occidental days, and Obama was reportedly a gracious host, doing grocery shopping and making chicken curry (which he'd learned to cook from Pakistani friend Sohale Siddiqi).[2][3]

After their first semester, Obama tried to find a better apartment for himself and his friend, but was only able to locate a studio. He eventually moved into a walkup at #6A, 339 E. 94th St., in Yorkville, where he would "chat with his Puerto Rican neighbors about...the sound of gunfire at night".[4]


When he was on campus, Obama concentrated on academic work, spending most of his time in Butler Library "like a monk", and made few friends. He also took up jogging (around Central Park) and "stopped getting high". Still, he had time for the occasional beer, and enjoyed watching sports.

He majored in PoliSci, and concentrated in "International Relations," (now International Politics - this is a subfield of the PoliSci major and should not be confused with a "concentration," the Columbia term that substitutes for what most schools term a "minor").

He also took classes in other disciplines, including a class with famed literary theorist Edward Said. Boehner confirmed that Obama found Said's focus on theory tedious and that both would have preferred to be reading Shakespeare. Obama apparently called Said "a flake". [5]

Obama's professors and classmates, including former international politics professor Michael Baron and current MTV president Michael Wolf, confirm that he was a brilliant, standout student and that he was an active participant in seminars. Baron said he was one of the top one or two students in his class. Despite this, Obama continually declines requests to release his Columbia transcript.

Sources first differed on whether he wrote his senior thesis on Soviet nuclear disarmament[6] or the North-South debate on trade and the "new international economic order"[7]. Later, it emerged that he had not really written an official thesis at all: students were not required to do so at the time, and what was considered his "thesis" was really a long seminar paper. Obama wrote his for Prof. Baron's American Foreign Policy class. A search has been launched[8] for a copy of the paper, which was confirmed to have been on the topic of Soviet disarmament. Baron, Obama's de facto "thesis" advisor, is now retired to Florida, and claims to have lost his copy of the paper in a move some time ago.

It has been reported that Obama graduated without honors[9], but if the policies then were the same as they are today, he would not have been eligible for Latin honors, because he spent only two years in the college. After graduation, Obama hoped to become a community organizer, but could not find work as one, and joined a consulting firm instead.


In spring 1983, Obama wrote at least one article for the now defunct campus publication Sundial, a discussion of the aims and methods of campus anti-war groups.[10] His friend Phil Boerner explains that during this period, Obama wanted to be a writer rather than a politician.

Obama also claims to have participated to some extent in anti-apartheid activities with the Black Students Organization.

At one point he worked selling subscriptions to The New York Times to pay Columbia's tuition costs.[11]

Free time

On off days, Obama would reportedly browse bookstores like the Strand and a Barnes & Noble that apparently once operated across from Columbia. He also went to museums, such as the Met and the Guggenheim.

Boerner remembers their discussions of John Rawls's A Theory of Justice in particular. They also listened to reggae.

Like many Columbia students, Obama partook of breakfast at Tom's Restaurant and beers at The West End.

Formation of views

The racist and anti-Semitic graffiti he sometimes encountered on bathroom walls on campus helped Obama form his ideas about race and class. He wrote of "the almost mathematical precision with which America’s race and class problems joined; the depth, the ferocity, of resulting tribal wars; the bile that flowed freely not just out on the streets but in the stalls of Columbia’s bathrooms as well".[12]

According to Phil Boerner, Obama "could get pretty emotional about sports, food and injustice" at the time.

Recent relationship with Columbia

Many Columbia students audaciously hoped he would win the Democratic primary and the national election.

He has repeatedly turned down requests to be the Class Day speaker in recent years, as well as general requests to appear from the College Democrats. Recently, CC Class of 2011 President Sean Udell spearheaded the "POTUS Project" to get the president to speak at University Commencement, an honor traditionally reserved for the University President alone. President Lee Bollinger, however, cosigned the initiative[13], to little avail.

Obama did, however, note that Columbia was his alma mater while visiting during the ServiceNation Presidential Candidates Forum, and sent a letter to the attendees of the Class of 1983's 25th reunion gathering. Obama's 2009 tax filings revealed what may be stirrings of latent loyalty to the institution: Obama donated $1,000 to Columbia that fiscal year, giving nothing to Harvard.

In 2012, Obama spoke at the Class Day of Barnard College. This caused considerable consternation in the Columbia College community (see "Obamanard"), especially among those who had been organizing to bring him to campus as a Class Day speaker for CC. The New York Times speculated that the reasoning was tied to the political issues surrounding women's health at the time.[14]

Other Columbia coincidences

In his primary fight to become the Democratic nominee, Obama faced, among others, GS alum Mike Gravel. His Republican opponent was John McCain, a former Class Day speaker whose daughter, Meghan McCain, was CC'07. In the general election, he also faced tickets with Wayne Allen Root, also CC'83, the Libertarian Party vice presidential nominee, and independent vice presidential candidate Matt Gonzalez CC'87.

Following his victory, Obama nominated Eric Holder CC'73 for Attorney General and Julius Genachowski CC'85 chairman of the FCC. Judd Gregg CC'69 was later nominated as Commerce Secretary, but later removed himself from consideration, citing irreconcilable differences with the administration.

Revisionism and Obama's Columbia Years

As with the 'birther' movement's obsession with the veracity of Obama's birth records, occasional hoaxes and misinformation are promulgated surrounding his time at Columbia or a fictitious "thesis" written while a student.[15]


External links