I sort of share an alma mater with Barack Obama, in that I graduated from the small college where he started his degree before transferring to Columbia. There was a decade between his departure and my arrival, but I feel a wee bit of connection all the same. (Still torn about how to cast my vote in May, though.) Two of my co-workers were students there when Obama was, and one remembers him from the year they lived in the same dorm. It is the fewest degrees of separation I've yet come from someone so close to the presidency. (T shook President Clinton's hand once during a Boy's State photo-op, but I don't know if that counts.)
By the time I enrolled, both the student body and the school's mission had shifted somewhat. The college was in the middle of a broad and often divisive effort to take up issues of race, ethnicity and culture in everything from admissions to faculty to student life to curriculum. To tweak a currently popular phrase, we were constantly in the middle of a campus-wide conversation on race. For a sheltered white girl from the Pacific Northwest, it was an eye-opening experience. I sometimes wonder what Obama would have thought of that version of our school, how it might have altered his experience there. But in any case it has been fun for me to see favorite former politics professors quoted in news stories and to imagine Obama sitting in the classrooms in which I spent so many hours, hearing the same lectures on community and American society and political theory. I picture him walking through the oak trees in the quad, eating under the beamed ceilings in the (now-demolished) dining hall and participating in typically clichéd late-night conversations in the dorm hallways. It makes him seem quite human in my mind.
Perhaps it's just my advancing age or becoming a parent, but I've been thinking lately about how powerful individuals were once school kids and college students. Their identities emerge over time and were I to come across them earlier in their lives I would likely never dream they would later have such influence. I lack the imagination to see greatness coming out of places--or people--which are familiar to me.
Perhaps it is that same lack of imagination, but I don't have big, specific aspirations for my kids. I think dreams belong to them to determine. But there is something heartening about feeling that the possible paths for their lives are still broad when mine seem to narrow with each passing year. And somehow knowing that a woman or a biracial man may soon hold the presidency makes my daughter's seem that much more expansive.