Mercer Island High School student, Hannah Winkelman, interviewed Maya Soetoro-Ng, President Obama’s half-sister, about her mother and about her upcoming visit to Mercer Island for the Stanley Ann Dunham Scholarship Awards Ceremony on April 20.
Mercer Island High School may have had a hand in shaping our 44th president; after all, Barack Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, graduated from MIHS in 1960. A prominent intellectual, Dunham enjoyed talking about new ideas, current events, and reading books from the Mercer Island library as a high school student. She went on to earn a Ph.D. in anthropology and worked with women in developing countries around the world, giving them the courage to be independent and the tools to start their own businesses. It all started in a Seattle suburb known as Mercer Island, in an even smaller neighborhood known as the Shorewood Apartments.
“[Mercer Island] helped her develop a sense of curiosity about the larger world,” said Maya Soetoro-Ng, Dunham’s daughter, and President Obama’s half-sister. “I imagine her being a teenager watching the water in various places around her and wondering where it might carry her, and it could carry her very far.”
Dunham spoke fondly of her time on Mercer Island, telling Soetoro-Ng stories of growing up, about what she would wear — penny loafers and sweater sets — as well as stories of her friends. She told Soetoro-Ng that she used to climb trees on the Island with a book and read; sometimes she would just sit in the trees and think.
“She would tell me stories about the places they would walk and some of the things that they read,” said Soetoro-Ng. “My sense was that her set wasn’t particularly wild, but they were invested in the world; a nice group of people.”
MIHS proved to be the perfect place for Dunham. Her teachers encouraged Dunham’s curiosity. They taught students to question their surroundings, and never to accept anything as “just is,” but to look for a deeper meaning.
“[MIHS] helped make her feel like she could be brave intellectually and in other ways as well,” said Soetoro-Ng.
“[But the Island] seemed like it was a really friendly and loving place,” said Soetoro-Ng. “It made her feel protected as well. For the rest of the life she loved the Seattle area, and would tell me that I would love it there, too.”
After graduating from MIHS in 1960, Dunham moved with her parents to Honolulu and attended the University of Hawaii at Manoa. During her first semester, she met and fell in love with Barack Obama Sr., the first African foreign student enrolled at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She dropped out of school and married Obama on Feb. 2, 1961. From the fall quarter of 1961 through the spring quarter of 1962, Dunham, now “Anna Obama,” attended the University of Washington, while she and her baby boy, Barack, lived in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle.
Later, when she returned to Honolulu, she found out that Barack Sr. was still married to his previous wife. She divorced him and finished her studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. There, she married Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian graduate student. The new family moved to Indonesia, and in 1970, Dunham’s second child was born. That child is Maya Soetoro-Ng, who lives in Honolulu with her husband and two children and is a professor of education at the University of Hawaii.
As an anthropologist, Dunham worked all over the world, reaching out to women lacking resources but still holding their communities together. Fearless, she would explore the countries she worked in, eager to see these new environments.
Dunham died in 1995 of ovarian cancer, but her spirit lives on in Hawaii, as well as in Washington, D.C.
Many of Soetoro-Ng’s descriptions of her mother seem as if they could be about President Barack Obama, whom Maya considers a feminist president.
“Being a single mom while traveling, seeing the women she respected, my mother became [more of a] feminist. She defined feminism as something that could either be soft or edgy, but it’s about transforming our lenses in the way that we see the world to ensure that women have equality and are healthy, that they are supported, that they have voice in their communities,” said Soetoro-Ng. “That’s something that she certainly passed onto my brother, the president, and he has said that women’s issues are important in order to insure that the community as a whole — families, children — are helped. She passed that on, and that’s why I call him the feminist president because even though he’s a male, he has a strong belief in that.”
Dunham’s influence is apparent in Obama’s presidency from his domestic health care plan to his global perspective in international relations. In speaking about his mother in “Dreams From My Father,” by Barack Obama, he says, “I know that she was the kindest, most generous spirit I have ever known, and that what is best in me, I owe to her.”
In 2010, Tony Nugent (MIHS ’58), an alum of the first MIHS graduating class, and other MIHS alums and supporters of young women’s education, created a scholarship in honor of Stanley Ann’s memory. At a time when women were not expected to lead, Dunham became a leader. She put great value on learning from people in other cultures, and worked around the world to help those living in the Third World advance. Focusing on women, Dunham gave them the tools to start their own businesses and move forward.
The scholarship awards $5,000 each year to a Mercer Island senior girl who demonstrates a passion and commitment to the values embodied in Dunham’s life and work, and to empowering women around the world. This year Maya Soetoro-Ng, President Obama’s half-sister, will be the honored guest at the Stanley Ann Dunham Scholarship Award Ceremony on Saturday, April 20, from 12 to 2 p.m. at the Mercer Island Community and Event Center. This free event is open to the public.
A longer version of the story appeared in the Mercer Island High School newspaper, The Islander.