ABOVE PHOTO: Malia Obama (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
By Darlene Superville
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s daughter Malia will take a year off after graduating high school in June before enrolling at Harvard University in 2017, a year later than had been widely expected, the president and his wife said in a long-awaited announcement Sunday.
Harvard encourages admitted students to defer for one year to travel, pursue a special project or activity, work or spend time in another meaningful way. The student must not enroll in a program at another college that would grant the student a degree.
Malia, who turns 18 in July, is the elder of the Obamas’ two daughters. She is a senior at the exclusive Sidwell Friends school in the District of Columbia, which claims another first daughter, Chelsea Clinton, among its alumni.
Malia is set to graduate high school in June. Her sister, Sasha, 14, is a freshman at Sidwell.
Obama has talked about dreading the day when Malia leaves for college. Her decision to take a gap year could keep her closer to home as her family prepares for the major transition coming next year: leaving the White House and returning to private life. Obama plans to live in Washington for a few more years so Sasha can finish high school. The president and his wife, Michelle, still own a home in Chicago.
Gap years are more common in Europe and Australia than in the U.S., according to the Portland, Oregon-based American Gap Association. But a growing number of gap year programs suggest increasing popularity in the U.S.
“It’s definitely gaining momentum,” said Ethan Knight, the association’s executive director, citing increased interest from high school students. “Students go to college more satisfied and engaged, and universities often see these students become leaders on campus.”
The first lady has said Malia wants to be a filmmaker. She has interned on the set of HBO’s “Girls” and on a now-canceled network TV sci-fi drama that starred Halle Berry. Malia has also had internships at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington.
The president turned down an invitation to speak at Malia’s Sidwell graduation, saying he would be too emotional.
“I’m going to be sitting there with dark glasses, sobbing,” he told Ellen DeGeneres during an appearance on her talk show.
Obama grew up without his father, who was born in Kenya and is now deceased, and has spoken of his desire to be there for his kids. The bond between Obama and his children was readily apparent, as he often was seen holding hands with either daughter getting on or off the presidential aircraft or on the family’s walks through Lafayette Park to attend services at St. John’s Episcopal Church across from the White House.
Malia joined her father earlier this month on a three-day trip that started at the University of Chicago Law School, where he once taught constitutional law, to discuss his stalled nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the U.S. Supreme Court. From Chicago, they flew to Los Angeles and San Francisco, where the president attended fundraisers and played golf.
“Both of my daughters are wonderful people. Malia’s more than ready to leave but I’m not ready for her to leave,” Obama told DeGeneres. “She’s one of my best friends. It’s going to be hard for me not to have her around all the time, but she’s ready to go. She’s just a really smart, capable person, and she’s ready to make her own way.”
Malia visited at least a dozen public and private colleges during her search, mostly on the East Coast, except for Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley. Six of the eight Ivy League schools were among them, including Harvard, where her parents earned law degrees.
The president is a 1983 graduate of Columbia University, and Mrs. Obama graduated from Princeton in 1985.
By choosing Harvard, Malia seems to have disregarded her parents’ advice. Harvard confirmed Malia’s acceptance.
“The one thing I’ve been telling my daughters is that I don’t want them to choose a name,” Mrs. Obama said in a recent interview with “Seventeen” magazine. “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?”