Fact Check

Was Barack Obama a Foreign College Student?

This rumor took multiple forms during Obama's first year as U.S. president.

Published May 8, 2009

 (Getty Images)
Image Via Getty Images
Records document that Barack Obama received college financial aid in the U.S. as a "foreign student from Indonesia."


One of the avenues of approach taken by "birthers" in their quest to demonstrate that Barack Obama is not eligible to hold the office of President of the United States is to try to demonstrate that, even if he was born in the United States, he gave up his U.S. citizenship somewhere along the way, and, if he's not a U.S. citizen, then he can't legitimately be president.

Therefore, many birthers gleefully seized onto a supposed news report from April 2009, which purported that Obama attended Occidental College in Los Angeles under a scholarship granted only to students of "foreign citizenship." They spread the rumor via the below-transcribed text:

April 1, 2009

Final Nail In Obama's Lack Of US Citizenship Coffin?

AP — WASHINGTON D.C.: In a move certain to fuel the debate over Obama's qualifications for the presidency, the group Americans for Freedom of Information has released copies of President Obama's college transcripts from Occidental College. Released today, the transcript indicates that Obama, under the name Barry Soetoro, received financial aid as a foreign student from Indonesia as an undergraduate at the school. The transcript was released by Occidental College in compliance with a court order in a suit brought by the group in the Superior Court of California. The transcript shows that Obama (Soetoro) applied for financial aid and was awarded a fellowship for foreign students from the Fulbright Foundation Scholarship program. To qualify, for the scholarship, a student must claim foreign citizenship. This document would seem to provide the smoking gun that many of Obama's detractors have been seeking.

The news has created a firestorm at the White House as the release casts increasing doubt about Obama's legitimacy and qualification to serve as president. When reached for comment in London, where he has been in meetings with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Obama smiled but refused comment on the issue. Meanwhile, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs scoffed at the report stating that this was obviously another attempt by a right-wing conservative group to discredit the president and undermine the administrations efforts to move the country in a new direction.

Britain's Daily Mail has also carried the story in a front-page article titled, Obama Eligibility Questioned, leading some to speculate that the story may overshadow economic issues on Obama's first official visit to the U.K.

In a related matter, under growing pressure from several groups, Justice Antonin Scalia announced that the Supreme Court agreed on Tuesday to hear arguments concerning Obama's legal eligibility to serve as President in a case brought by Leo Donofrio of New Jersey. This lawsuit claims Obama's dual citizenship disqualified him from serving as president. Donofrios case is just one of 18 suits brought by citizens demanding proof of Obama's citizenship or qualification to serve as president.

Gary Kreep of the United States Justice Foundation has released the results of their investigation of Obama's campaign spending. This study estimates that Obama has spent upwards of $950,000 in campaign funds in the past year with eleven law firms in 12 states for legal resources to block disclosure of any of his personal records. Mr. Kreep indicated that the investigation is still ongoing but that the final report will be provided to the U.S. attorney general, Eric Holder. Mr. Holder has refused to comment on the matter.

However, this item wasn't a news report at all — it was a hoax whose elements were demonstrably false:

  • The article was datelined "April 1, 2009" and tagged "AP," supposedly signifying it came from the Associated Press news agency. The date was a giveaway to the hoax (it's April Fool's Day), and the text of the article does not at all fit the standard Associated Press stylebook guidelines.
  • There was no such group as "Americans for Freedom of Information" at the time this article began circulating. However, someone has since registered a site using that domain name; in fact, a website for the then-faux organization was established to poke fun at those who believed it was real:

    Read these tiny words very closely: the group Americans for Freedom of Information does not exist, just like the supposed "AP article" you keep cutting and pasting into e-mails to your irritated family does not exist, just like the "Daily Mail article" referenced in the fake "AP article" does not exist. They're all fabrications. Fakes. Hoaxes. Ask yourself why you're so eager to believe these obvious fakes. No, really. Really, really ask yourself.

  • Obama attended Occidental College in California for two years as an undergraduate from 1979-81 under the name Obama, not Soetoro (the latter is the surname of his Indonesian stepfather, Lolo Soetoro): A spokesperson for the school told journalists:

    Occidental has no record of a "Barry Soetoro" ever attending [Occidental], nor was there ever any such court order [requiring the school to turn over his transcripts], said Jim Tranquada, Occidental College's communications director, who personally answers the inquiries, demands and pleas of people looking for proof that the president is not who he claims to be.

    Tranquada said: "Contemporary public documents, such as the 1979-80 freshman 'Lookbook' [a guide distributed to incoming freshman] published at the beginning of President Obama's first year at Occidental, list him as Barack Obama. All of the Occidental alumni I have spoken to from that era (1979-81) who knew him, knew him as Barry Obama."

  • If Obama were an Indonesian citizen, he couldn't possibly have "received financial aid" or "been awarded a fellowship for foreign students" from the Fulbright Foundation Scholarship program while attending Occidental as an undergraduate. Fulbright scholarships for foreign students of Indonesian citizenship are coordinated through the American Indonesian Exchange Foundation (AMINEF), which does not fund Indonesians for undergraduate study in the United States (only for master's or doctorate programs).
  • Obama's student records from Occidental College remain unreleased. He has not chosen to make them public, nor has any court ordered the school to release them.
  • Searches of newspaper archives and electronic news databases show that neither Britain's "Daily Mail" nor any other major UK newspaper published a front-page article entitled "Obama Eligibility Questioned" in 2009, nor did any such newspaper publish an article consisting of the text reproduced above.
  • Leo Donofrio's lawsuit challenging Barack Obama's eligibility for the presidency was denied a hearing by the Supreme Court of New Jersey back in December 2008. It has not been taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • The website of the United States Justice Foundation includes no report of an "investigation of Obama's campaign spending," and the executive director of that organization who is referenced in the e-mail, Gary Kreep, said in response to an inquiry that the e-mail was a hoax.

Months after the fake news story started circulating, another iteration of the rumor surfaced: This time, the claim focused on photographs of Obama posing with family members (his mother; his step-father, Lolo Soetoro; and his half-sister, Maya) and an Indonesian elementary school registration form.

The below-displayed photo is an authentic image of Lolo Soetoro, Stanley Ann Dunham Soetoro, baby Maya Soetoro, and 9-year-old Barry Soetoro (Obama).

Then, there is the below-displayed image depicting a registration document that the Fransiskus Assisi School in Jakarta, Indonesia, released publicly on Jan. 24, 2007. Much as been made of the document, which ostensibly shows Obama's stepfather, Lolo Soetoro, having listed his stepson's nationality as "Indonesian" (thereby supposedly indicating that Obama relinquished his U.S. citizenship at some point). The document also lists Obama's religion as "Islam."

After her divorce from her first husband, Obama's mother married an Indonesian student, Lolo Soetoro, who was attending college in Hawaii. In 1967, the family moved to Indonesia, where Obama attended elementary school in Jakarta until 1971. After that, he returned to Hawaii to live with his maternal grandparents.

However, Lolo Soetoro's putatively listing his stepson's nationality as Indonesian on a school registration form does not in itself demonstrate that Obama was officially regarded as an Indonesian citizen by the government of that country. In any case, it's a moot point, since the same form shows that Obama was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, thereby making him a U.S. citizen from birth. (U.S. law states that a foreign nationality acquired through a parent does not affect one's U.S. citizenship status, nor can a child's U.S. citizenship be renounced solely through the actions of his parents.)

Parents cannot renounce U.S. citizenship on behalf of their minor children. Before an oath of renunciation will be administered under Section 349(a)(5) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), a person under the age of 18 must convince a U.S. diplomatic or consular officer that they fully understand the nature and consequences of the oath of renunciation; are not subject to duress or undue influence, and are voluntarily seeking to renounce their U.S. citizenship.

The claim that Obama attended college in the United States as a foreign student and/or under the name Barry Soetoro has also spread online via a digitally edited photo of a 1998 Columbia University student ID card.


Abcarian, Robin.   "'Birthers' Claim Obama Applied to College as a Foreigner."     Los Angeles Times.   30 May 2012.

Corcoran, Monica.   "Barack Obama Went Hawaiian Casual at Occidental College in L.A."     Los Angeles Times.   18 January 2009.

Gordon, Larry.   "Occidental Recalls 'Barry' Obama."     Los Angeles Times.   29 January 2007.

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.