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Occidental College announces new Obama Scholars program

Occidental College, where a young Barack Obama discovered his passion for politics and social issues, has announced a new scholarship program in honor of the former president “to empower exceptional students committed to the public good.”

Beginning in fall 2018, the liberal arts school in Eagle Rock will cover the costs of four years of undergraduate studies for two students, including their tuition, room and board and study abroad and summer internship programs. The college hopes to raise $40 million to endow and expand the program. So far, it has raised $7 million.

Administrators estimate it will cost about $500,000 to support each student through the program, which also includes a fifth-year fellowship.

The Barack Obama Scholars Program will recruit students from all backgrounds, with an emphasis on veterans, community college transfers and students who are the first in their families to attend college, administrators said. The scholars will be chosen from the regular freshman application pool.

The idea is to support students who have demonstrated a passion for civic engagement but lack the opportunity to fully realize their goals of bringing meaningful change to this world, campus President Jonathan Veitch said in an interview with The Times.

“So many of our challenges are immensely complicated and vexing, and it's crucial that we provide our students with the skills to be able to address them,” he said. “Our hope is, whether they do that as a mayor of a town or a city or they do it in state legislature or Congress or in business or in medicine or in journalism, whatever it is they want to pursue ... we want to make sure that they're equipped to be effective change agents.”

For a long time, Veitch said, people at Occidental have been thinking of ways they might honor the legacy of Obama, who attended the small 2,000-student liberal arts college in 1979 before transferring in 1981 to Columbia University. Naming an institute after Obama was one idea, but Occidental leaders were inspired by more comprehensive, merit-based programs like the Morehead-Cain scholarship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“We wanted a living legacy,” Veitch said. “Our goal is to educate students who emulate President Obama’s values and qualities — students who are committed to the public good.”

Obama scholars will be mentored by an advisory council composed of high-profile alumni, former administration officials and Obama’s friends. Former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson falls in that category. He has been instrumental to shaping the program and was one of the first to donate, Veitch said.

Obama, who has not donated, said he was humbled by the program established in his name and proud of its mission to recruit students from all backgrounds to not only “give them access to higher education, but to train the next generation of leaders and active citizens, and fill them with the conviction that they too can change the world.”

“My years at Occidental College sparked my interest in social and political causes, and filled me with the idea that my voice could make a difference,” Obama said in a statement. “And throughout my time in public service, I’ve tried to use my voice to bring people together, in common effort, around the idea that we could give every young person in America the chance that America gave me.”

rosanna.xia@latimes.com

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