For millions of young Americans heading off to college this month, the start of the academic year is an opportunity to continue a journey into adulthood, embark upon a period of self-discovery and prepare for the real world.
But what of two students who enter campus life with the most famous last names in the world? Tiffany Trump, the youngest daughter of the current president, has enrolled at Georgetown Law, and Malia Obama is entering Harvard University as a freshman. Will college life be an escape for them as well?
“The [college] culture is pretty respectful of their privacy,” said Jack Rakove, a Stanford University professor of history and political science who served as Chelsea Clinton’s thesis adviser when she was an undergraduate there.
Rakove, who also taught the golfer Tiger Woods and the actress Jennifer Connelly, recalled the mass excitement when the Clintons rolled up to campus. Her father was still in the White House, so Chelsea arrived via Air Force One and a full presidential motorcade; a heavy police presence and a gaggle of reporters trailed the first family.
But just as quickly as Chelsea’s cavalry rolled in, it dissipated.
“There was a concerted effort and a pretty well-established norm to do the best you could to try to treat her as anyone else,” Rakove said. Her Secret Service agents dressed down and carried backpacks to blend in. The student newspaper laid down a rule not to write about the first daughter unless she made news.
Malia Obama seemed to be trying hard this week to make her move-in anything but exciting. While chatting with other students in a public space on Harvard’s campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she politely declined a reporter’s interview request, according to the Boston Globe.
Former president Barack Obama was spotted at a Harvard Square restaurant, suggesting that he came to town to move her into her dormitory – but if he came to campus, he managed to stay invisible. Malia Obama took a gap year after her 2016 high school graduation, which delayed her start at Harvard until after her father left office, which means the family now has a leaner Secret Service detail and no pool of reporters documenting their comings and goings.
A smattering of photos of Malia Obama in Cambridge circulated on the Internet, but even those look-who’s-here shots may soon vanish, said Elliot King, a professor of communication at Loyola University Maryland.
“When you see somebody every day, they stop being a celebrity,” King said. “Part of being a celebrity is the distance, their mediated image. You’re not really seeing the flesh-and-blood person who has to raise their hand and answer a question or be your lab mate.”
The children of presidents don’t generally choose their fame, which college communities tend to understand, said Ellis Cashmore, a visiting professor of sociology at England’s Aston University.
“Universities are not demographic reflections of wider society: Their populations are younger, more aspirational, more educated and – hopefully – more analytical,” said Cashmore, the author of Elizabeth Taylor: A Private Life for Public Consumption. “So there are fewer idolaters than in the rest of society… No one [at Harvard] – at least no one with a scrap of dignity – will want to be seen to be taking pictures of Malia. It would look pathetic if other students, her peers, were so adulatory.”
Yet even young A-listers who achieved fame in their own right have gone to college hoping for the same low-key treatment.
During her freshman year at Yale University in 1981, former child star Jodie Foster told reporters that she intended to have a “normal life” there. An Oscar nominee at 14, she went on to take a role in a campus play and managed not to steal the show. She studied Afro-American literature, and her classmates seemed to pay her little mind. Foster later described her college years as a time of self-discovery.
Brooke Shields enrolled at Princeton University in 1983. The Blue Lagoon star and Calvin Klein model had been dubbed the “Face of the Eighties” – but classmates remember quickly becoming nonchalant about bumping into her on campus or at parties.
Tripp Evans was a teaching assistant for an art history class at Yale in the 1990s when the actress Sara Gilbert, then in the middle of an Emmy-winning run on the hit sitcom “Roseanne,” showed up in his discussion group. He remembers the other students greeting Gilbert, who was almost always prepared for class, with “a studied casualness.”
“Yale students can sometimes overcompensate in showing they’re not impressed. I’m sure the same’s true at Harvard,” said Evans, now a professor at Wheaton College in Massachusetts.
But not every mega-celeb has had an easy go of it.
Emma Watson, who became a household name starring in the Harry Potter films, had a bumpy road at Brown University. She enrolled as a freshman in September 2009 but took time off in 2011 to work on the final Potter movie. There were rumours that she had been bullied on campus, but Watson described it as a more nuanced experience.
“I was in denial,” Watson told Britain’s Sunday Times. “I wanted to pretend I wasn’t as famous as I was. I was trying to seek out normality, but I kind of have to accept who I am, the position I’m in and what happened.”
She said she was never asked for an autograph on campus and even managed to throw a party for nearly 100 students without one photo making it onto Facebook. Yet at her graduation, an armed bodyguard sat next to her, camouflaged in a cap and gown, a move that drew mockery from gossip writers and underscored her remove from fellow students.
While enrolled at Princeton, the actor Graham Phillips continued filming the TV drama The Good Wife, on which he played the son of the central character, Alicia Florrick. Once a week, he headed to a TV set in New York but otherwise immersed himself in the campus life.
“Everyone on campus seems to take everyone else at face value,” said Phillips, who graduated as a US history major. “That was so refreshing to me.” Students who recognised him from the show wouldn’t bring it up unless he invited the conversation.
Corinne Foxx, daughter of Oscar winner Jamie Foxx, also found a measure of normal life for herself at the University of Southern California, at a time when she was also being photographed with her movie star dad at red carpet events. Some friends later admitted that they had pretended that they didn’t know who her father was so she wouldn’t feel awkward about it.
“Growing up in Los Angeles for high school, a lot of kids are very into being in Hollywood. My college friends weren’t like that,” said Foxx, who has worked as a model and recently founded an online lifestyle magazine. “All my friends are lawyers and teachers who aren’t in the entertainment industry. They think what I do and what my dad does is cool, but they aren’t obsessed with it.”
The only time she was wary of her privacy being invaded was when she was out at parties.
“I was always hyper-aware and very mild and reserved because you never know who is recording,” she said.
We can probably expect a similar level of reserve from Tiffany Trump and Malia Obama.
They are the first presidential children to pursue higher education in the age of social media, to which they have adopted different approaches.
Obama has no known social media accounts, while Trump – a 2016 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania – has a robust Instagram presence, with 862,000 followers, which grew dramatically during her father’s presidential run.
Trump’s most recent photos are of herself with friends this summer on a European vacation. She’s posted nothing from Georgetown’s campus. Through a public relations firm, she declined to be interviewed for this article.
The first year of law school is serious business, though, which could be incentive to put her head down and blend in. That was the approach of older sister Ivanka Trump during her undergraduate years, first at Georgetown and later at the University of Pennsylvania. Classmates remember her as the girl who sat in front of class and seemed really engaged.
“I had just read about her in Seventeen magazine,” said Amee Patel, who recalled being surprised when she saw Ivanka Trump’s name on her freshman chemistry class roster. “But so many people there were important in their own way. The prince of Spain was [at Georgetown] at some point. There were people whose parents were politicians and CEOs.”
Patel never saw anyone approach Ivanka Trump or pay her any obvious deference. Looking back, Patel thinks other students feel a desire to protect their few famous peers during their college years.
“It’s a weird time,” she said. “Everyone is figuring out what it is to be in this new world, so in some ways it makes them seem more human.”