Malia Obama, after a gap year, heads to Harvard

Malia Obama was 10 years old and in the fifth grade when her father became president, and this week she will start a new chapter.

She's off to Harvard, ending a gap year that sparked a national conversation about the trend and unfolded across multiple continents.

Harvard's dorms open to freshmen Tuesday, and classes begin Aug. 30. The university is a familiar place for Obama's alumni parents, who both graduated from Harvard Law School. It also is no stranger to celebrity students and is the alma mater of eight U.S. presidents. That President Barack Obama's friends and former administration officials hold faculty posts at Harvard means his daughter won't be entirely on her own. A Secret Service detail will ensure that, too.

"How time flies," said Anita McBride, a chief of staff for Laura Bush, whose daughters Barbara and Jenna greeted Michelle Obama and her daughters at the White House after the 2008 election.

The White House florist had made bouquets for the Obama girls. The Bush daughters gave them the grand tour, teaching them how to slide down the banister in the solarium. The departing White House daughters also gave the Obama girls a friendly letter full of their well wishes and advice.

"Here's a girl who's grown up in the public eye and who's been able to maintain a normal, private life and make regular, everyday decisions about her education and life choices," McBride said. "She took advantage of a very interesting opportunity at a very unique time in her life, an in-between time in her life."

Delaying her Harvard start meant that Malia Obama, 19, would arrive on campus with less visibility and pressure than had she started in 2016 during her father's final months in the White House, said McBride, who is now with American University's School of Public Affairs.

After Barack Obama left office, the family moved into a house in Washington's Kalorama neighborhood, letting Sasha Obama finish Sidwell Friends School, from which Malia Obama graduated in 2016. Sasha, 16, will graduate from Sidwell in 2019.

The Obamas announced in May 2016 that Malia Obama had been accepted to Harvard but was taking a gap year. The year according to news accounts, included an extended trip last fall to Bolivia and Peru, a journey reportedly organized by a Boulder, Colo., company called Where There Be Dragons. Eva Vanek, director of admissions for the company, declined to talk about Malia Obama but spoke generally about its gap-year and summer programs, saying they operated in 19 countries in Asia, Africa and South and Central America.

The aim is a cross-cultural, experiential education, Vanek said. That means no five-star hotels or fancy buses, but rather stays with local families, volunteer work, trips on public buses and often, language immersion. The small-group trips "aren't touristic. They aim to broaden students' perspectives about the world and themselves through these really intimate experiences," she said.

The goal is to let participants become "competent travelers and more evolved humans," Vanek added.

Last February, Malia Obama started an internship with the Weinstein Co., an employee there said. It's a film and television production and distribution company founded by brothers Bob and Harvey Weinstein. She hit the Sundance Film Festival in January, was spotted in Aspen, Colo., in February, traveled in June with her parents and sister to Bali and rocked out with her younger sister in August at Chicago's Lollapalooza.

Because of her gap year, Malia Obama will join Harvard's Class of 2021, an exclusive group about to get an expensive education.

Harvard's tuition, fees, room and board run $65,509 for the upcoming school year, though many students get need-based financial aid. Only 5.4 percent of the 39,041 students who applied to be in the Class of 2020 were admitted: 2,110 students. Altogether Harvard has about 6,700 undergraduates and 14,500 graduate and professional students.

The school offers nearly 3,900 courses in 49 undergraduate fields of study, or "concentrations." All freshmen must take Expository Writing 20, but otherwise there is no preset curriculum. Those admitted into her 2021 class are, by a slim majority of 50.9 percent, mostly nonwhite, according to university officials, who declined to comment on Malia Obama.

Soon she'll be able to stroll Harvard Yard, shop at the campus store called "The COOP" and perhaps take meals with other freshmen at Annenberg Hall, a high-ceilinged dining hall that draws comparisons to the Great Hall in the Harry Potter series. And she'll hit the books. University officials tell students to budget up to $1,200 a year for textbooks.

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