Barack Obama’s Mother … and the UW Department of Anthropology

Every year, thousands of students take courses in anthropology at UW. For most, this brief exploration into the many diverse ways of being human becomes part of their overall education as, we hope, thoughtful and well-informed fellow citizens. For several hundred students, this first course leads to many others, and to a major or minor in anthropology. For a small number it may eventually lead to graduate study and a PhD in anthropology.

One of the students who took Anthropology 100 at UW in 1961 was a young mother with a newborn son at home. Though she earned an excellent grade, it likely was not obvious to her nor to her teacher that she would be one of those few who would eventually go on to earn a PhD in anthropology. For her dissertation at the University of Hawai‘i, Stanley Ann Dunham pursued research in Indonesia, exploring women’s roles in cottage industries — an interest that eventually led her to work on microcredit financing programs aimed at addressing rural poverty. And her son, Barack Obama, went on to become President of the United States.

In recognition of this connection, the UW Department of Anthropology this year is partnering with the Stanley Ann Dunham Scholarship Fund (SADSF) to organize a joint outreach event at the Burke Museum on Friday, May 1. The Mercer Island-based SADSF this year has also funded a cash prize that will be awarded to the winning entry in the Dunham Essay Contest, open to UW anthropology majors, for an essay that discusses the continuing relevance and importance of Dunham’s life, work, ideas, and values in today’s world, as well as for the field of anthropology. In the future, SADSF and the Department of Anthropology hope to work together to endow a scholarship fund in Dunham’s honor, to support an undergraduate anthropology student at the University of Washington.

After all, from such modest beginnings, great things can follow!