Nine letters between former President Barack Obama and his college girlfriend, Alexandra McNear, have been obtained by Emory University.
The the letters cover a period in the early ’80s as Obama and McNear correspond long distance: Obama at Columbia University in New York City and McNear at Occidental College in California.
The two met at Occidental before Obama transferred to Columbia in 1981. The letters cover a period of transition for each of them as they discuss the challenges of college life, share visions of the future, and grapple with political topics of the day.
“I think undergraduate students will benefit immensely from seeing how, as a young man, Obama internalized his studies and got the most out of a liberal arts education,” says Andra Gillespie, associate professor of political science and director of Emory’s James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference.
“It gets harder and harder to swim against the channels of specialization, as the course levels increase,” writes Obama in one letter. It’s hard to imagine a future president cramming for finals or worrying about the postcollege job market, but a vision of a nascent Obama begins to emerge from the letters.
Given his unconventional background, being raised in both Indonesia and Hawaii, the young Obama shares feelings of uncertainty about his place in the world. “I must admit large dollops of envy for both groups, my American friends consuming their life in the comfortable mainstream, the foreign friends in the international business world,” he writes.
He tells McNear about a return trip to Indonesia but finds himself cut off from his adopted home: “I’m treated with a mixture of puzzlement, deference and scorn because I’m American. … I see old dim roads, rickety homes winding back towards the fields, old routes of mine, routes I no longer have access to.”
The letters have a lyrical quality to them, and it isn’t difficult to see Obama’s gift for oration beginning to germinate in these early years. “I trust you know that I miss you, that my concern for you is as wide as the air, my confidence in you as deep as the sea, my love rich and plentiful,” he writes in one letter.
Gradually McNear and Obama’s relationship would cool, and the two would part amicably as friends. “I think of you often, though I stay confused about my feelings,” Obama writes. “It seems we will ever want what we cannot have; that’s what binds us; that’s what keeps us apart.”
The postcollege world would be a rough-and-tumble period for the future president, as he found salaries in the community-organizing world lacking. “Salaries in the community organizations are too low to survive on right now, so I hope to work in some more conventional capacity for a year, allowing me to store up enough nuts to pursue those interests next,” he writes.
Obama now has a net worth of $40 million, but at one time couldn’t afford to pay for stamps. “One week I can’t pay postage to mail a resume and writing sample, the next I have to bounce a check to rent a typewriter,” he tells McNear.
He would ultimately find a job at Business International but chafed at the corporate environment and planned to stay at most a year before pursuing his political ambitions.
“The resistance I wage does wear me down — because of the position, the best I can hope for is a draw, since I have no vehicle or forum to try to change things,” he notes. “For this reason, I can’t stay very much longer than a year. Thankfully, I don’t yet feel like the job has dulled my senses or done irreparable damage to my values, although it has stalled their growth.”
The letters will be housed at Emory’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library and are available to students and scholars by appointment.
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