Barack Obama: College in Los Angeles Shaped Identity

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "A Promised Land" by Barack Obama. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Where did Barack Obama go to college? How did his time at Occidental College shape his worldview?

Barack Obama attended Occidental College in Los Angeles beginning in 1979. At Occidental, Obama became more interested in literature and politics, and began forming his political beliefs.

Read more about Barack Obama, Occidental College, and his experiences there.

For Barack Obama, College Offers an Intellectual Awakening

Although Barack was always described as intelligent by those who knew him during this time (or at least “smart-mouthed,” according to Gramps), he was unmotivated as a teenager. Hardly a star student and certainly no one’s idea of an overachiever, Barack’s favorite pastimes at this age were hanging out with friends, drinking beer, and smoking marijuana.

Although these were fairly typical experiences for a teenager growing up in the 1970s, they spoke to what Barack would later describe as a certain aimlessness during this period of his life. But during high school, literature began to stir an intellectual awakening within him. Prodded by his mother, who’d instilled in him a reading habit as a child, Barack began to dip his toes into the world of ideas and great thinkers. 

In his later high school years in Honolulu, he could frequently be seen devouring works by authors ranging from Langston Hughes to Ralph Waldo Ellison. It was still self-directed learning at this age. There was no system to how or what he read, nor did he fully understand the texts he was burning through. But he had discovered something far more valuable—a lifelong thirst for knowledge.

Occidental College, 1979: Forming a Political Consciousness

Barack matriculated at Occidental College in Los Angeles in the fall of 1979. Although he brought with him a certain intellectual fervor, he was still the typical college freshman in many ways, interested in parties and coeds (often hoping to impress attractive female classmates with his eclectic reading choices).

But Barack did begin to develop some of his core political beliefs during his time at Occidental College. While he was still cynical about political parties and the efficacy of electoral politics (an attitude he had inherited from his mother, who viewed all politicians as corrupt, self-serving, and phony), his conversations with professors and his experiences with a diverse student body taught him that broad social movements had enormous power to catalyze political change.

For Barack, figures like Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968), and young civil rights leader John Lewis (1940-2020) were the real agents of change—people who mobilized grassroots coalitions to help the oppressed find their voice and achieve agency over their own lives and futures.For the first time, Barack Obama began to see the awesome potential of mass democracy and a politics based fundamentally on empowerment instead of power. He realized that he wanted to make his mark on the world by pursuing these ideals.

Barack Obama: College in Los Angeles Shaped Identity

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Here's what you'll find in our full A Promised Land summary:

  • How Barack Obama went from relative obscurity to the first Black president
  • What principles guided his political leadership style
  • Why Obama retained an unshakable faith in the potential and promise of America

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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