Obama began his formal education at the Noelani Elementary School in Woodlawn Drive, Honolulu, in 1966. After the move with his mother to Indonesia in 1967, his stepfather, Lolo Soetoro, enrolled him in SD Fransiscus Asisi (St. Francis of Asisi), a Catholic primary school under the auspices of the St. Francis of Asisi Church in Jakarta. He spent three years there before being transferred to the government-run Menteng State Elementary School in 1970 for his darjah empat dan lima (fourth and fifth grade).
Upon returning to Hawaii in 1971, his grandparents sent him to the exclusive Punahou School in Honululu, which was also the biggest private school in the country at the time. Obama was a popular student there, participating in various extra-curricular activities whilst maintaining respectable grades. The pinnacle of his achievement at Punahou was playing for the school basketball team that finished as State Champions in 1979. He would recount later in his book, Dreams From My Father, how the emerging questions about his identity, his self, his heritage, pushed him towards alcohol, drugs and parties, and for a brief period of time, threatened to extinguish his potential.
Dreams From My Father, page 54-55
“Junkie. Pothead. That’s where I’d been headed: the final, fatal role of the young would-be black man. Except the highs hadn’t been about that, me trying to prove what a down brother I was. Not by then, anyway. I got high for just the opposite effect, something that could push questions of who I was out of my mind, something that could flatten out the landscape of my heart, blur the edges of my memory. I had discovered that it didn’t make any difference whether you smoked reefer in the white classmate’s sparkling new van, or in the dorm room of some brother you’d met down at the gym, or on the beach with a couple of Hawaiian kids who had dropped out of school and now spent most of their time looking for an excuse to brawl…”
“It was at the start of my senior year in high school; she was back in Hawaii, her field work completed, and one day she had marched into my room, wanting to know the details of Pablo’s arrest. I had given her a reassuring smile and patted her hand and told her not to worry, I wouldn’t do anything stupid. It was usually an effective tactic, another one of those tricks I had learned: People were satisfied so long as you were courteous and smiled and made no sudden moves…”
“Except my mother hadn’t looked satisfied. She had just sat there, studying my eyes, her face as grim as a hearse. “Don’t you think you’re being a little casual about your future?” she said. “What do you mean?” “You know exactly what I mean. One of your friends was just arrested for drug possession. Your grades are slipping. You haven’t even started on your college applications. Whenever I try to talk to you about it you act like I’m just this great big bother.”
I didn’t need to hear all this. It wasn’t like I was flunking out. I started to tell her how I’d been thinking about maybe not going away for college, how I could stay in Hawaii and take some classes and work part-time. She cut me off before I could finish. I could get into any school in the country, she said, if I just put in a little effort. “Remember what that’s like? Effort? Damn it, Bar, you can’t just sit around like some good-time Charlie, waiting for luck to see you through…”
Obama was at Punahou for a total of eight years until his graduation in 1979. He moved to Eagle Rock in Los Angeles a couple of months later after his application to Occidental College, one of the most highly regarded liberal arts colleges in the country, was accepted. It was his two years at Occidental that proved to be the catalyst of his birth into the world of politics.
The culture of student activism there drew out the simmering sense of alienation that has accompanied Obama throughout his young adult life. It was here also that the idea of public service, a notion long espoused by his mother, began to take shape within him. The quiet junior from Haines Hall gradually participated in a number of initiatives organized by the students. The Iranian hostage crisis, the apartheid policy of South Africa and the nation’s economic upheavals all proved to resonate deeply with Obama. In his sophomore year, on Feb. 18, 1981, Obama made his first public speech, calling for the trustees of the college to divest from South Africa.
August 25, 2008, From the Boston Globe, by Scott Helman
However, he felt a need to experience something bigger, and in the summer of 1981, Obama engineered a transfer to Columbia University of New York. He graduated from Columbia in 1983 with a BA in Political Science, majoring in International Relations. After graduation, Obama worked as a financial writer for over a year at Business International Corporation, a New York-based financial consulting firm.
After almost four years studying and working in New York, Obama moved to Chicago in 1985. The seeds that his mother had planted in him finally bloomed, and after an exhaustive job hunt, Obama decided to accept the position of Director for the Developing Communities Project in Roseland and Altgeld Gardens in Chicago’s South Side.
May 25, 2008, Barack Obama’s speech at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut
“… by the time I graduated from college, I was possessed with a crazy idea — that I would work at a grassroots level to bring about change. I wrote letters to every organization in the country I could think of. And one day, a small group of churches on the South Side of Chicago offered me a job to come work as a community organizer in neighborhoods that had been devastated by steel plant closings.
My mother and grandparents wanted me to go to law school. My friends were applying to jobs on Wall Street. Meanwhile, this organization offered me $12,000 a year plus $2,000 for an old, beat-up car. And I said yes. Now, I didn’t know a soul in Chicago, and I wasn’t sure what this community organizing business was all about. I had always been inspired by stories of the Civil Rights Movement and JFK’s call to service, but when I got to the South Side, there were no marches, and no soaring speeches. In the shadow of an empty steel plant, there were just a lot of folks who were struggling. And we didn’t get very far at first.
I still remember one of the very first meetings we put together to discuss gang violence with a group of community leaders. We waited and waited for people to show up, and finally, a group of older people walked into the hall. And they sat down. And a little old lady raised her hand and asked, “Is this where the bingo game is?”
By his third year there, Obama realized that enabling change in such a disadvantaged community would necessitate a higher level of involvement from both the private and public sector. To better equip himself to meet these challenges, as well as fulfilling his mother’s wish, he applied to Harvard Law School in Massachusetts. In 1988, Obama resigned from his job in Chicago after being accepted into Harvard Law. Armed with experience and driven by desire, he became a star student there. He achieved the distinction of becoming the first ever black Editor and subsequently, President, of the Harvard Law Review, which is the most respected and widely cited student law review in the country. He obtained his Juris Doctor in 1991, graduating Magna Cum Laude.