Malia Obama wasn’t the first-ever child of a U.S. president to enroll at Harvard, as she did last year, with former first lady Michelle Obama and President Barack Obamaaka “Mom and Dad”—on hand to get her settled in on move-in day.
But considering the last first daughter to do so was Caroline Kennedy in the 1970s, her experience at the storied Ivy League institution promised to be unlike any of the first kids who matriculated before her. For starters, what teenager wants to avoid the Internet?
Malia, who took a year off before college and will celebrate her 20th birthday on July 4, lived in the White House between the tender ages of 10 and 18, young enough for a bit of an Eloise-at-the-Plaza type of experience but old enough to be privy to plenty of the garbage directed at her family from the vast world of cable news, Twitter and, more than a few times, Capitol Hill. There’s been no such thing as a presidency that didn’t exist under a dirty microscope—Chelsea Clinton left for college just in time—but a lot of the mundane daily scrutiny usually saved for the president himself broadened to encompass the first lady and their children at an unprecedented level during the Obama years.
So, no wonder Malia was more than ready to strike out on her own after high school.
After committing to Harvard, Malia spent her gap year traveling and doing yet another Hollywood-adjacent internship (this time for The Weinstein Company in New York), almost like a normal kid. Not counting the bodyguards and private jets.
She started off with a trip to Liberia and Morocco in July 2016 with sister Sasha Obama, mom Michelle and grandmother Marian Robinson to promote the Let Girls Learn Initiative. The Obamas went on their usual summer getaway to Martha’s Vineyard—and toward the end of 2016 Malia spent 83 days in Peru and Bolivia, where she lived with a family in the town of Tiquipaya, a trip so well-cloaked that no one knew she was gone until after she got back to the U.S.
“She was very humble, chatty, spoke Spanish very well,” Gregorio Mamani, one of the guides on a five-day hike she took through the Cordillera Real mountain range, told The New York Times. “She was mesmerized by the Bolivian landscape.” Minus the added security, all of those on the excursion were expected to look after themselves and Malia acquitted herself admirably, doing her share of the cooking and other chores.
She spent a few months at The Weinstein Company in early 2017 (after reports detailing years of sexual assault and harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein broke in October, the Obamas said, among other things, that they were “disgusted”). While in New York that April, Malia attended a Discovery Communications- and NRDC-hosted talk about the future of the environment under President Trump, held at NYU’s School of Law. Then in June 2017, the Obama family spent 10 days vacationing in Bali.
After that, Sasha returned to D.C., where she now has one more year of Sidwell Friends School to attend, and it was time for Malia to head to Harvard.
“Enjoy college. As most of the world knows, we did,” Jenna Bush Hager and twin sister Barbara Bush wrote last year in an open letter to the Obama sisters, offering some words of wisdom about life after the White House. “And you won’t have the weight of the world on your young shoulders anymore. Explore your passions. Learn who you are. Make mistakes—you are allowed to. Continue to surround yourself with loyal friends who know you, adore you and will fiercely protect you. Those who judge you don’t love you, and their voices shouldn’t hold weight. Rather, it’s your own hearts that matter.”
The twins were 18 when dad George W. Bush was elected president and Jenna attended the University of Texas, Austin, while Barbara went to Yale. Long since settled down as a Today correspondent and married with two kids, Jenna had some painfully normal oats to sow when she left home, getting busted twice in 2001, once for underage alcohol possession and then for trying to use a fake ID to buy booze. Since pleading no contest to both, her record has been spotless, but she knew a few things about having one’s mistakes blown up for the world to see.
A few weeks before Malia moved into school, she went to Lollapalooza in Chicago—and reportedly ended up needing to make a detour to an Apple Store when she lost her iPhone.
Otherwise, sheltered within the centuries-old walls of Harvard Yard, Malia Obama had a very normal freshman year, if not for the fame that preceded her. On day one she politely shook the hand of a Boston Globe reporter but declined an interview and refused to offer any first-day-of-school details, but for the most part she was noticed yet left to her own devices.
“I was proud that I did not cry in front of her,” President Obama said at an event about a month after seeing Malia off to school. “But on the way back, the Secret Service was looking straight ahead pretending they weren’t hearing me as I sniffled and blew my nose. It was rough.”
Michelle Obama recently revealed at the Klick Health Muse event that she did indeed have some advice for her eldest daughter when she left the nest: “‘Don’t end up on Page Six.’ I don’t know if she managed that.” (As dutifully reported by Page Six.)
Malia immersed herself in student life, attending football games—including the 134th occurrence of The Game, which is what they call Harvard vs. Yale—and tailgating. She neither hid from nor ran toward the spotlight, not doing anything that turned into headline Harvard news but also not avoiding the great big world out there.
And like any student, she enjoyed getting out of town every once in awhile, which led to more sightings and subsequent headlines.
Besides, there really wasn’t any way that she could make people un-interested in her, and whenever she was spotted doing anything, be it holding a cigarette at the football stadium last winter or wearing braids and workout clothes after Soul Cycle earlier this month in her now fairly beloved New York, it caught people’s attention.
In January she both took a trip with her mom to Miami and then took a jaunt to New York with Rory Farquharson, the British student she was spotted sharing a kiss with at the Harvard-Yale game and has been romantically linked to ever since. (According to the Telegraph, Rory interned last summer for the Center for Democracy and Peace in Northern Ireland. Page Six reported in January, meanwhile, that he deleted his social media accounts, from which inquiring minds had been gleaning most of their information.)
Now on summer break, Malia was spotted on Saturday at Hamptons hot spot Surf Lodge with girlfriends, her Secret Service detail rolling discreetly in the background at the Montauk beach club, according to (sorry, Michelle) Page Six.
“She remembered people’s names from last year,” one spy said, noting that Malia was a return customer, having celebrated her 19th birthday there as well.
But if the Daily Mail was trying to jolt anyone out of their comfort zone by noting that she was “partying” in Montauk over the weekend, it’s going to take a lot more than that to rattle Malia’s parents.
“Sometimes we treat our children too preciously because of the issues they’ve dealt with,” Michelle Obama said last November, talking to Elizabeth Alexander at the Obama Foundation summit in Chicago, per InStyle.
“Barack and I, we thought about with Malia and Sasha, OK, we could’ve spent eight years feeling sorry for them that they were living in a bubble that every misstep for them would be on YouTube, that their privacy, they didn’t have access to their father in a way…We could’ve felt bad for them, and there would’ve been a truth there. But our view was this is their life, and we can’t apologize for the life they have because a whole lot of it is good.”
Michelle must also be pleased that Malia has a close coterie of female friends around her for support. “Women, we do it better than men,” she said about forming relationships. “I’m, you know, sad for you guys. Y’all should get you some friends. Get you some friends and talk to each other, ’cause that’s the other thing we do; we straighten each other out on some things, our girlfriends.”
The Obamas’ hands-on-but-not-with-kid-gloves approach seems to have served both relatively drama-free daughters well.
“I threaten them that I’m going to buy an apartment near their campus and visit and sit in their classes, but that’s an idle threat,” Michelle Obama told Entertainment Tonight in May 2017. “I’m going to be happy to see them thriving on campus, work study jobs, traveling and having all these wonderful independent experiences that are going to make them phenomenal people.”
As Malia Obama leaves her teen years behind for good, she’s yet to prove her parents wrong.