Pride and solidarity at Obama’s high school

President-elect Barack Obama is a Harvard man.

He graduated in 1991 from the university’s law school, where he served as editor of the Harvard Law Review. But at Yale, a small group of current undergraduates can say they share the Illinois senator’s other alma mater: Punahou School, a college preparatory school in Honolulu, Hawaii.

While Obama is one of many prominent alumni from the prestigious high school, Elis who attended Punahou said they were more proud of the country’s president-elect than of old Blues who have occupied the oval office. Regardless of their political views, all six of the Punahou alumni interviewed said they were excited to have Obama represent their school and the Aloha State, where high school loyalty often runs deeper than college pride.

Founded in 1841, Punahou is the nation’s oldest independent school west of the Mississippi River, with 3,750 students from kindergarten through 12th grade, according to the school’s Web site. Currently, there are 16 former Punahou students at Yale.

Before graduating in 1979, Obama played varsity basketball in high school. His grades, however, were sub par, said Courtney Fukuda ’12, based on conversations she had with the college counselor she shared with the president-elect.

When Obama launched his campaign in February 2007, many Punahou alumni at Yale said they became strong Obama supporters; the senator’s ties to their school were seen as an added bonus to his candidacy.

“There’s a sort of thrill that someone who is so close to my upbringing has gone on and done something so special,” explained Punahou graduate George Bogden ’11.

Republican or politically ambivalent Punahou graduates also said they feel a sense of connection to and pride in the president-elect.

“I love my school, but I love my country too,” said Punahou graduate and John McCain supporter Tyler Dos Santos-Tam ’10 of his voting decision. Still, he added of Obama, “I didn’t vote for him, but I’m still proud of him.”

In Hawaii, Dos Santos-Tam explained, ties to one’s high school often exceed those to one’s college. In comparison, he said, Yalies’ sense of loyalty to former presidents George H.W. Bush ’48 and Bill Clinton LAW ’73 and current president George W. Bush ’68, is less strong.

“Sometimes people even neglect to say which college they graduated from and just say they graduated from Punahou,” Fukuda said. High school graduations, for which family members fly in from around the world and graduates are bedecked with leis, are almost on par with weddings, she explained.

“I definitely feel like there is a tie just because of our school,” she said, in connection to Obama.

Yalies from Punahou cited Hawaii’s small size and sense of community as causes of such “hometown pride,” as graduate Sophia Merrifield ’10 called it.

Many Punahou Yalies interviewed said they hope Obama will put their state “back on the map” when he enters the White House.

“People forget about Hawaii a lot of the time because we’re not part of the continental U.S.,” Punahou graduate Randy Wong ’12 said.

In 2004, Obama returned to Punahou as a newly elected Illinois senator. Seating was limited at the assembly where Obama spoke that December day. Fukuda recalled that some students tried to buy seats off their friends, because of his popularity. “It was definitely a sell-out crowd.”

“It’s pretty fanatic,” Punahou graduate and John McCain supporter Kelsey Sakimoto ’12 said of current support for Obama at his high school.

Echoing these sentiments, Punahou students now at Yale said it is no surprise that a president has come out of their alma mater. Among Punahou’s alumni are the founders of eBay and America Online, along with Yale alumnus Hiram Bingham III 1898, who rediscovered the Inca settlement of Machu Picchu.

“Punahou is very conscious about the whole leaders-for-tomorrow thing and giving back to the community,” Sakimoto said. “It’s not surprising that Barack Obama, after graduating from Punahou, entered the line of work that he did.”

At the very least, Punahou Yalies agreed, Obama’s mixed ethnic and racial background fittingly calls attention to Hawaii’s diversity. In his memoir “Dreams from My Father,” Obama recounts being one of two black students in his class when he first arrived at the private school in fifth grade, attending on a scholarship.

“Hawaii’s a very accepting place; it’s a cultural mixing pot,” Wong said. “And Senator Obama is representative of that.”

Exposure to a large interracial population, as well as to Hawaii’s geographic and political ties to international affairs, also prepares Obama well for the presidency, Dos Santos-Tam said.

“Growing up in that environment, you become very tolerant of different cultures and different ethnicities,” Merrifield said. “He has an uncanny ability to kind of connect with people from all cultures, political standpoints, levels of education and ages.”

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