Michelle (Robinson) Obama ’85 in Princeton’s Freshman Orientation Program

By Iliyah Coles ’22

Freshman Orientation for the Class of 1985, 1981. Office of Communications Records (AC168), Box 182.

It may be difficult to recognize at first glance, but there is a now-famous face in this photograph. The former first lady, Michelle Obama, then named Michelle Robinson, is on the first row sitting from the top towards the middle of the photograph. This is a picture of the 1981 Freshman Orientation Program participants from the Class of 1985. The program was implemented sometime in the 1970s; it lasted for about three weeks during the summer.

The Freshmen Orientation Program was designed to assist incoming students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The program introduced the students to Princeton, complete with rigorous courses and campus life. At the start of the program, only minority students were allowed, but as the program progressed, the participants included those with financial struggles and those who were the first in their high school to attend Princeton. The Daily Princetonian quoted Assistant Dean of Students Rochelle Robinson in 1984, “Academically, the objective of the program is to reduce the ‘preparation gap’ that separates students from small, remote, or inner-city schools.” 

Obama joined this program in 1981 with the incoming Class of 1985. Though the Freshman Orientation Program does not exist in this form today, there is still a version of it called the Freshman Scholars Institute (FSI), which seeks to help incoming students with the transition as well. 

For more information on what our records hold related to Michelle (Robinson) Obama’s time at Princeton, please see our previous blog on this topic.

Dear Mr. Mudd: What Information Do You Have about Michelle Obama’s Time at Princeton?

By Christa Cleeton with April C. Armstrong *14 and Dan Linke

Dear Mr. Mudd,

What do you have in your collections about Michelle Obama?
There is not that much information available, but we do have some material. Michelle Obama–then named Michelle LaVaughn Robinson–graduated from Princeton University with the Class of 1985.
Nassau Herald entry of Michelle Robinson

Nassau Herald (senior yearbook) entry for Michelle LaVaughn Robinson ’85.

The University Archives holds her thesis, Princeton Educated Blacks and the Black Community. When normal operations resume for Mudd Library, visitors can read this thesis in the reading room after submitting a request through the Princeton University Catalog using their research accounts. Anyone can also read it online via Politico.
The alumni records of undergraduates from Princeton during this time are broken into two categories, which we refer to in shorthand as “public” and “academic” files. The public files (Undergraduate Alumni Records (AC199)) consist of material compiled by the Bureau of Alumni Information on individual graduates. Material in each file varies greatly but most include the names of relatives, notable achievements at Princeton as well as post-graduation, news items, address updates, and obituaries. These files are generally open pending review. The academic files (Undergraduate Academic Records (AC198)) contain applications, transcripts, and other information relating to the subject’s academic career while at Princeton and therefore are closed–even to the students themselves–during their lifetimes. You can find a full description of the access policy for University Archives material on the Special Collections website.
Obama’s public file reveals that she was involved in the Center-Stage Production of The Wiz as a makeup designer. She was also involved in some fundraising fashion shows, including “A Parade of Fashion” and “Secret Fantasy.” A few related articles are in the Daily Princetonian and Princeton Weekly Bulletin, which have been digitized in the Papers of Princeton database.

Photo from the Daily Princetonian.

In the database, one can also find a few references to Obama’s role as a member-at-large of the Governance Board of the Third World Center (now the Carl Fields Center), to which she was elected in 1983, and to her membership on the Undergraduate Student Government’s Standing Committee on Race Relations.

The University Archives has two photos of Obama located in Princeton’s yearbooks: The Freshman Herald (below) and The Nassau Herald (top of this post).

Freshman Herald entry

Freshman Herald entry for Michelle L. Robinson ’85, 1981.

Last year, student employee Iliyah Coles ’22 found another photo that appears to be of Obama in the May 7, 1984 issue of The Vigil alongside Joey Harris ’85. The Vigil was the newsletter of Princeton University’s Third World Center (now the Carl Fields Center). The caption that accompanied the photograph congratulated Harris on his election as chair of the Center’s Governance Board.

Photo from The Vigil, May 7, 1984.

The Vigil is found in the Princeton University Publications Collection (AC364).

There are a few other photos of Obama you may have seen online that she has shared herself, one of her in front of Firestone Library on her Instagram page and another of her near a dorm publicized through various media outlets. These are not held within our collections.

January 6, 2021 update: An additional photograph of Obama from her Freshman Orientation Program has been identified. To view it, please see today’s blog on this topic.