From Harvard to the White House: Barack Hussein Obama

On an afternoon in the early 1990s, a gaggle of basketball players from Harvard Law School travelled an hour outside of Cambridge to a high-security prison in Walpole.

After depositing their keys, phones, and jewelry with security guards upstairs, the group descended into a monitored, basement room to face off against a team of inmates.

One imposing Walpole inmate sauntered across the room toward a skinny student who stood at the front of the group—current president Barack Obama.

Obama leaned in for a traditional handshake and hug, nonchalantly asking the inmate why he had been incarcerated.

“Double murder,” the inmate replied.

Yet, according to Charles J. Ogletree Jr., an Obama mentor and Harvard Law School professor, Obama maintained his aggressive playing style—a fearlessness and aggressiveness that many critics have argued Obama has lost since his election in 2008.

“He’s competitive and that was reflected on the basketball court,” classmate Jason B. Adkins said.

Today, Obama remains locked in an intense struggle for the White House as election season hurdles toward its finish next Tuesday.

Although Obama generally refrains from discussing his time at Harvard Law School, the president blossomed into a leader and teacher during his three years in Cambridge.

“Harvard was, for Barack, a place to reflect, to learn and to reinforce his already very considerable skills and insights,” Law School Professor Laurence H. Tribe ’62 said during the presidential campaign four years ago.

While at the Law School, Obama pioneered a new brand of activism for students who hoped to ensure that Harvard adhered to a standard of diversity and equality.

“He was definitely one of the leaders and shining lights in our year,” Adkins said.

“He knew exactly what he wanted and went about getting it done,” Law School professor David B. Wilkins ’77 said during Obama’s first campaign for president. “He was the kind of person who you knew was destined for greatness.”


When Barack Obama entered Harvard Law School in 1988, he had already spent three years working as a community organizer in inner-city Chicago, and at age 27, he was relatively older than his peers.