Malia Obama is going to Harvard - but taking a year off first

By Helena Andrews-Dyer

President Barack Obama jokes with his daughter Malia Obama as they walk to board Air Force One from the Marine One helicopter in Chicago last month. Photo / AP
President Barack Obama jokes with his daughter Malia Obama as they walk to board Air Force One from the Marine One helicopter in Chicago last month. Photo / AP

The White House has announced that eldest first daughter Malia Obama will attend Harvard University.

But the Sidwell Friends senior, 17, will not be attending school this northern autumn.

US President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama announced that Malia "will take a gap year before beginning school." This means she will attend Harvard in the northern autumn of 2017 as a member of the class of 2021.

In September, President Obama shared some advice he'd given college-bound Malia: Don't worry too much about which school you choose. Advice that the rest of the world has completely ignored.

The where-will-she-go fever in the US hadn't died down since Malia made headlines in 2014 by wearing a Stanford T-shirt on a bike ride with her dad. The wild guessing game was immediately on, with Washington first-family watchers piecing together clues and parsing her visits to more than a dozen colleges.

Would she attend any of her parents' alma maters? Head to California to get a slice of West Coast living? Or stay closer to Washington, where the post-White House Obamas will park until Sasha, 14, graduates from high school?

At times, Malia's road to college felt a lot like basketball superstar Lebron James's massively hyped 2010 NBA decision. But the White House emailed reporters a two-sentence news release on the traditional May deadline to declare acceptance.

Although the President and the first lady adopted a code of silence about Malia's specific choice, they did publicly share the advice they gave her as she navigated the college-admissions process. They said the topic was a regular part of the family's nightly dinner conversation.

"The one thing I've been telling my daughters is that I don't want them to choose a name," Michelle Obama told the editors of Seventeen magazine in an article published in April. "I don't want them to think, 'Oh I should go to these top schools.' We live in a country where there are thousands of amazing universities. So, the question is: What's going to work for you?"

The first lady, a graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law School, was echoing advice similar to what the President, a graduate of Columbia and Harvard Law, said he had given Malia. "Just because it's not some name-brand, famous, fancy school doesn't mean that you're not going to get a great education there," Obama told a group of high-schoolers in September.

The White House, which has closely guarded the details of Malia and Sasha's comings and goings, had no further comment on Malia's college choice or why she has decided to take a so-called "gap year," a sabbatical of sorts between graduating high school and heading off to college.

The first daughter's standardised test scores and GPA are not known, but Malia's interest in film is widely known (she's interned for the CBS series Extant and HBO's Girls). In the past, the Obamas have described their firstborn as scholarly - an "avid reader," her mother said; the kind of student who was unhappy with average grades, her father said.

The bar for Malia and her sister's behaviour has always been high. As the first children to grow up in the White House during the age of social media, Michelle Obama has warned her daughters of the danger of a "bratty" moment being caught on video, shared with millions and shaping their public images without their control.

In the rare moments that Malia's image has spread on social media, the spontaneous snapshots have been relatively innocuous. A photo she sent a friend wearing a branded T-shirt for the rap collective Pro-Era was shared widely in 2015, as was a 2014 photo of her at the Lollapalooza music festival in Chicago. The most memorable moment, though, was a grainy image of Malia attending a college party during a visit to Brown University. She was standing next to what appeared to be a beer pong table covered in red Solo cups.

After the beer pong adjacent incident, the country's collective willingness to protect the privacy of the President's daughters was made evident in an editorial titled "Sorry, Malia Obama" that ran in the Brown Daily Herald.

"It is a shame that Malia was unable to visit Brown and enjoy herself at a party without several news headlines coming out about it the next day," the editorial read.

"Malia did not choose to grow up in the White House, and it is unfair that everything she does at just 17 years old is subject to such harsh scrutiny," continued the editorial, also acknowledging that "the chances of her selecting Brown have probably decreased since the publication of those articles."

There's no way of telling whether the tweets and Instagrams trailing Malia's well-documented college tour actually affected her decision. But at a recent White House event, the first lady noted that the fishbowl of living in Washington was wearing on her daughters. According to Mrs. O, ". . . the older they got the less excited they were about living in a museum, and they just wanted to live in a regular home".

And there is one rite of passage for every newly minted adult that the first lady is certain Malia will pass: doing her own laundry. The first lady made sure of that.

"I don't want her to be that kid who is 15 or 16, and [she's saying], 'Oh, I don't know how to do laundry.' I would cringe if she became that kid," Obama said in a 2011 interview with Oprah Winfrey, emphasising that she wanted both her daughters to learn how to handle "their own business."

"And you're not living in the White House forever," the first lady said. "You're going to college."

- Washington Post

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