A young man with a red backpack often lingered outside the International Affairs Building. He was a commuter student, so he typically arrived early, but the door to his Modern Political Movements class was always locked until the last minute.
His classmate, Michael Ackerman, CC '84, always forgot whether his name was Barry or Barack. He knew that "Barak" means "thunder" in Hebrew, but Ackerman didn't think he looked Jewish. Ackerman said he found his fellow political science major "charming," but the two remained only casual acquaintances.
Barack Obama, CC '83, was "almost chameleon-like, spy-like, slipped in and out," Ackerman recalled. "He tried to keep to himself."
Barack Obama returns to campus today for the first time since kicking off his presidential bid. Many Columbians cheer the fact that if the Senator wins in November, he will be the first Columbia College alumnus in the Oval Office. But Obama has kept noticeably silent about his experience at Columbia, offering only scant recollections in his autobiography, Dreams From My Father, and subsequent interviews.
Obama transferred to Columbia from Occidental College in Los Angeles in search of a change of pace and intellectual atmosphere, he has said in his books and interviews. The experience of living off campus in the early 1980s may have estranged him from the student community inside the gates.
"I spent a lot of time in the library. I didn't socialize that much. I was like a monk," he told Columbia College Today in 2005.
"Columbia is a hard place to be as a transfer. I can imagine he wasn't quite as integrated because of where he lived," said Vice President for Arts and Sciences Nicholas Dirks, who arrived at Columbia in 1992.
According to Ackerman, who is now a lawyer in California, Obama sometimes played pick-up games of basketball and went to a few meetings of the Black Students Organization, but "he didn't really hang out much" and kept his nose in the books.
"At that time, a lot of commuters at Columbia weren't as involved as people who lived on campus," Ackerman said.
In the fall of 1982, Obama enrolled in a two-semester senior seminar of about eight students that was taught by Michael Barron, GSAS '80. The class analyzed presidential foreign-policy decision-making processes, the Cuban Missile Crisis and other pivotal moments in international political history.
Discussion centered around choices made in the Oval Office and how American presidents handled international crises or wars. The class didn't so much look back at the what, where, and when, but rather dissected the how and why.
"We tried to figure out the decision-making style," said Barron, who now runs an electronics company in Florida. "Was it collegial? Did the presidents make the decisions on their own? Did they include a wide number of advisers? It was that kind of class. Were decisions made in a good way? It was more process-oriented than, 'Was the outcome good or bad.'"
Of Obama, Barron said, "He was a very bright student. Articulate, as many were in the class ... He wasn't the only one. I'd say he was one of the best one or two students in the class. But everyone in the class was oriented to doing something more with their lives."
Barron said Obama got an A in the class.
Ackerman said that if he had to pick someone from Columbia who he thought might be president someday, it wouldn't have been Obama. "I don't know that I would have put any money on it," he said. George Stephanopoulos, CC '82, on the other hand, was someone Ackerman saw as "bound for glory."
Obama himself noted in his nomination acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, "Let's face it, my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely."
And though Obama "wasn't the guy who really stood out" in Ackerman's memory, he made an impression that proved favorable enough to earn Ackerman's support for his candidacy.
"Looking at him now, and looking at him then, he was a straight guy," said Barron, who contributed to Obama's campaign and reacquainted with him at a fundraiser. "Seeing him, and seeing him up close now, the personal traits that I remember are not—he hasn't changed in that regard. From being a straight talker, very honest, upright kind of guy. A straight shooter. That was my impression then and it's my impression that he's still that kind of person. Very genuine, ... very grounded."
Though details are sparse, Obama's story still resonates for some. Transfer student Adam Sieff, CC '11, who worked for Obama's campaign this summer and serves as coordinator for the University's chapter of Students for Barack Obama, said he can identify with his political hero. Sieff compared his move from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., to Obama's move from Los Angeles and called it "an opportunity to develop as a well-rounded person, to sort of reflect on who I am and the man I want to be."
As for Obama's return to campus, the focus will be on business rather than nostalgia. New York campaign spokesperson Blake Zeff said in an email, "Sen. Obama is honored to return to his alma mater to remember those lost on 9/11 and discuss the role of citizenship and service in the post 9/11 era."