On Thursday, April 7, former President Barack Obama fielded questions about his career path and more from Hyde Park Academy High School students as the latest speaker visiting the school for a new Obama Foundation program. The school is just steps away from the forthcoming Obama Presidential Center (OPC) that is being constructed in Jackson Park. 

Students and staff greeted the former president with cheers and a standing ovation as sophomore Kingsley MacCarthy ushered him into the school’s auditorium. Before jumping into the conversation, one of the audience members asked, “Where’s Michelle (Obama)?”

“Michelle’s not here, girl. I’m here,” Obama said laughingly, and the room erupted in laughter. There were 450 students in the room. “I understand you’d rather have Michelle here, but I’m here,” he said. 

In February, the Obama Foundation started a new professional development speaker series that is now called the Futures Series. The program is a partnership between the high school and the Obama Foundation. Over the coming months, the high school will host speakers from various industries — including technology, science, and sports — to expose students to a variety of professions as they navigate life after high school. Typically, 35 to 50 students across grade levels are selected by teachers, counselors, and the principal to participate in the conversations based on their career aspirations. 

In preparation for today’s Q&A session with the former president, the student body at Hyde Park posed questions for Obama to answer. 

Students submitted more than 100 questions, according to Courtney Williams, director of communications at the Obama Foundation.

Students then used an app called Poll Everywhere to vote for their favorites, narrowing it down to 15 questions.

On April 7, 2022, former President Barack Obama answered questions about his journey to the White House during a speaker series at Hyde Park Academy in Chicago. Photo by ANF Chicago for The TRiiBE ®
On April 7, 2022, former President Barack Obama answered questions about his journey to the White House during a speaker series at Hyde Park Academy in Chicago. Photo by ANF Chicago for The TRiiBE ®

Next, students with the winning questions got the opportunity to read them aloud to Obama, and he answered them. Today, Obama spoke for more than an hour and answered six questions. 

“You have millions of schools to travel to. Why Hyde Park Academy?” Hyde Park senior Trinity Dixon asked. 

Obama explained that Hyde Park and the South Side are home for him and his family. It’s where he met and married the former first lady, where he began his career in law and politics, where his children were born, and it is the community that will house the OPC. 

“We’re building right across the street from you,” Obama said, referring to the OPC. “It would be kind of messed up if we were building all these buildings and we’re spending all this time at Kenwood [Academy High School].” 

He added that Hyde Park students represent all of the South Side’s talent while stressing the importance of investing, building, and maintaining a partnership with the high school directly across from the OPC. 

“If Hyde Park Academy is successful, then schools all across the city can be successful,” he said. 

In a follow-up interview with The TRiiBE, Dixon said, “I asked that question because I know he’s a very busy man.” She added that Obama’s being there to speak to her and the entire school community was important to her.

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Construction for the OPC began last August, and is expected to be completed in 2025. The 19.3-acre, $700 million OPC campus will be a hub for the Obama Foundation’s work, including a presidential museum, a Chicago Public Library branch, a children’s play area with an extensive playground, an open green space for community and social gatherings and more. It is expected to bring an estimated 5,000 jobs and 700,000 annual visitors to the area. 

Other student questions to Obama included: 

When you were about to graduate high school, did you have a clear vision of what career you wanted to do or did you discover it when you were in college?

As the first Black president of the United States, you naturally had a lot of eyes on you that supported you or wanted to see your fall from grace. How did you handle the pressures placed on you by external and internal expectations, and what standards did you set for yourself, if any. 

How did past experiences shape who you are today?

What would you most want to be remembered for? 

Here, Obama spoke candidly about his wife and daughters. He also spoke fondly about the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). 

“Ten, 12 years later, it is still going strong, and 30 million people have gotten help through the program. That’s something I feel really good about,” Obama said about ACA. 

What life lessons have you learned that you think would be best shared with students our age?

“There’s nothing wrong with you looking like you are interested and invested because here’s a secret for you. People are more likely to help you if they think that you appreciate them helping you, and it’s a good thing for you to get help from people because you will not succeed trying to do things on your own,” Obama said in response to the latter question.

Hyde Park Academy student Trinity Dixon. Photo by ANF Chicago for The TRiiBE ®

Williams said she hopes the Obama Foundation can implement more programs like this through the Chicago Public Schools district.

“We know that there are many youths who are interested in careers, and they maybe don’t have the exposure,” Williams said. “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it. We are hopeful that we’ll be able to expand the program.”

The Obama Foundation Futures Series will continue throughout the current 2021-2022 school year. Next up, Michelle Obama’s older brother Craig Robinson is scheduled to visit Hyde Park Academy High School on April 26. Future guest speakers will include Hyde Park High School alum and jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, astronaut Mae Jemison, Obama Foundation CEO Valerie Jarrett and more. Before Obama, previous speakers have included John Rogers, Myles Gage, Carl Mack, Britney Robbins, Elena Valentine, and more.

is a multimedia producer for The TRiiBE.