Obama's Other College Hopes For Presidential Boost

Obama diaper wraps

"Change We Need" diaper wraps are among the "BarOxyWear" items sold at Occidental College in Los Angeles. Ben Bergman/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Ben Bergman/NPR
A college-age Barack Obama i i

Barack Obama used this photo on his application to Occidental College. Courtesy of Occidental hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Occidental
A college-age Barack Obama

Barack Obama used this photo on his application to Occidental College.

Courtesy of Occidental

It is well known that Barack Obama attended Harvard Law School and Columbia University. But before that, he spent two years at a lesser-known institution: Occidental College in Los Angeles.

That Obama rarely mentions this small liberal arts school hasn't stopped Occidental from claiming him. In fact, the college is hoping an "Obama bump" will help propel it over the rough financial waters that many private schools are facing.

Until recently, the school was most famous for being the location where Beverly Hills 90210 and the '90s movie classic Clueless were filmed.

Obama didn't choose Occidental for the most academic of reasons. According to his memoir, his inspiration was a girl from Brentwood, Calif., whom he met while going to prep school in Hawaii. She made such an impression, he opted for a college nearby.

Still, Barry, as he was known in those days, was a serious student, according to Roger Boesche, his politics professor. Boesche has taught thousands of students over the years, and he says Obama definitely stood out. But did he see something in those days that was truly presidential?

"I cannot say that I looked across my class and said, 'Now that guy will even be in the Senate, much less the president,'" says Boesche. "But he stood out. He was very articulate."

In Boesche's History of American Political Thought class, Obama learned about Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and The Federalist Papers. There was also a section on the New Deal, something that may be especially useful now.

When he wasn't in the classroom, Obama spent hours in the gym playing pickup basketball. Classmate Brian Newhall often joined him there.

"I vividly remember him in the gym being very thin," Newhall says. "We both thought we were very good. We played against each other quite a bit. Driver — 'herky-jerky' would be the basketball term — and was very left-handed. But he was athletic, fast, competitive — but not such a good outside shooter."

It's become folklore around campus that Obama wasn't good enough to make the team. Perhaps that's a good thing, because if he had made the team and pursued his dream of becoming a professional basketball player, well, most likely no one would be hearing about Barack Obama.

Newhall, who now coaches the Occidental team, says it was actually Obama's choice not to play.

"He would have made an excellent Division III basketball player, but [he] just chose to study and focus on his academics," Newhall says.

After his sophomore year, Obama left Occidental and transferred to Columbia because he wanted a bigger school and to be in New York.

But Oxy, as many alumni call it, isn't harboring too much resentment. In fact, it devoted nearly all of its recent alumni magazine to the president-elect. On top of that, his former dorm is now a highlight of campus. The school also is planning special events for the inauguration on campus and in Washington, and the bookstore has a special section devoted entirely to "BarOxyWear."

There are hats in school colors emblazoned with "Obama '83," "Yes We Can" tank tops, and T-shirts that say "Everything Barack needs to know as President, he learned at OXY." There are also baby diaper covers imprinted with Obama's campaign slogan, "Change We Need."

The college also hopes to capitalize on Obama's victory through alumni giving and student admissions. Occidental President Bob Skotheim says this may be particularly helpful, given the economic recession.

"We hope that this will be an offset" to the recession, he says of the anticipated "Obama bump."

Any Obama bump would be amplified with a campus visit. It hasn't happened yet — even though Obama met with some of the college's trustees during the campaign.

"The invitation is open to him at his convenience," says Skotheim. "His response to the trustees was 'I will come when I'm in the White House.'"

Now that he's almost there, Occidental is waiting to see if Obama follows through on his promise.

Ben Bergman is a producer at Morning Edition and proud alum of Occidental College.

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