"Dear Alex:" Insight into the Mind of Barack Obama as a College Student

Last month, Atlanta’s Emory University made public a collection of letters written by former President Barack Obama during his college years. The collection, nine letters in total, are addressed to Obama’s then girlfriend, Alexandra McNear and exhibit the musings of a typical, but well-versed, college student.

The letters are greatly reflective of the introspection that occurs in people caught between life’s teeth: college and the real world; black and white; home and away; being in love and moving on. Obama writes beautifully, the inner-writer within him flooding to the surface. More than that, however, the letters showcase that Obama was once like all other students, experiencing the same college woes:

"School. What intelligent observations can I glean from the first two weeks? I pass through the labyrinths, corridors, see familiar faces, select and discard classes and activities, fluctuate between unquenchable curiosity and heavy, inert boredom."

It is difficult to imagine a time when Barack and Michelle Obama were not “Barack and Michelle Obama,” but the letters reveal that the president felt all of the earnest, both foreboding and exhilarating (and otherwise embarrassing) emotions of college romance for McNear:

"I think of you often, though I stay confused about my feelings . . . It seems we will ever want what we cannot have; that's what binds us; that's what keeps us apart."

"[A relationship] requires breaking some sweat. Like a good basketball game. Or a fine dance. Or making love."

The letters explore the deepest unravelings and self-evaluations of the former president, as he grapples with his Indonesian roots, and the relationship between himself and McNear and integrating into the workforce:

"[On returning to Indonesia] I can't speak the language well anymore… I'm treated with a mixture of puzzlement, deference and scorn because I'm American, my money and my plane ticket back to the U.S. overriding my blackness. I see old dim roads, rickety homes winding back towards the fields, old routes of mine, routes I no longer have access to."

"I am not so naïve as to believe that a distinct line exists between romantic love and the more quotidian, but perhaps finer bonds of friendship," he writes, "but I can feel the progression from one to the other (in my mind)."

"I have tried to tie down the stakes of life out of school, starting with employment and housing, before winter turns humorless… jobs are a more ticklish problem."

These peeks into Obama’s highly personal thoughts and feelings humanize the man who became a hero, an idol, and a reason to believe in something for many people across the globe. More than anything, however, these letters also explain the man he was destined to be. Reading the letters, these demonstrations of coming of age, it almost seems as if the presidency was already a part of him:

"I don't distinguish between struggling with the world and struggling with myself. … I enter a pact with other people, other forces in the world, that their problems are mine and mine are theirs. … The minute others imprint my senses, they become me and I must deal with them or else close part of myself off and make myself and the world smaller, lukewarm."