Barack and Michelle Obama stir buzz at daughter Sasha's USC graduation

Former President Barak Obama attends his daughter, Natasha Obama's, graduation ceremony at USC on Friday, May 12, 2023.
Former President Obama walks among a crowd at his daughter Sasha's graduation ceremony at USC. (Grace Toohey / Los Angeles Times)

For the record:
8:17 a.m. May 16, 2023: In a previous version of this article, Kim Denu’s last name was misspelled as Demu.

Even before the name "Natasha Obama" was announced as one of the hundreds of students graduating from USC's Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences on Friday morning, buzz was building about some familiar faces on campus.

Photos of her parents — the 44th president and former first lady — sitting behind cap-and-gown-clad students at Allyson Felix Field were posted on social media, while students at the ceremony texted friends in other colleges about the high-profile guests.

Kim Denu ended up sitting just a section over from Sasha's parents, Barack and Michelle, and older sister Malia — but with more than a dozen U.S. Secret Service agents in between them. Still, she was thrilled to see the family she long revered, and snapped multiple photos.

“I knew [Sasha Obama] transferred from [the University of] Michigan to here, but I had no idea she was graduating in this class with my niece," Denu said. "Very exciting!"

Sasha Obama, 21, beamed as she crossed the stage to commemorate her new sociology degree, as her sister and parents applauded in the audience. The announcement of her name was met with almost universal cheers from the crowd.

But otherwise, the family kept as low profile as possible at USC's graduation festivities, scooting out of the ceremony soon after Sasha Obama left the stage.

"I was so excited to see Obama and Michelle," said Michelle Davies, who also graduated Friday from the college. "I wanted a picture [with them] so bad, but then they left early. If I would have gotten a picture, I would have passed out."

The political science major said she knew Sasha from around campus, noting that the African American community at USC is pretty small — but said it was a different level to see Barack and Michelle Obama on Friday.

“I waved at them and Michelle waved back at me," she said, almost giddy.

The Obamas didn't address the crowd or take photos with attendees but cheered on the graduates and listened to the speakers. As Barack Obama walked out, he congratulated other parents and family members.

Alfred Chen and his friends rushed to the Dornsife College ceremony after getting a text that the Obamas were there.

“We tried to find them but we can’t, there’s so many people,” said Chen, who graduated from the engineering school Friday. Chen's group even posed for a photo with the Dornsife College ceremony behind him, in the hopes that the Obamas might be in the background. (Unfortunately, they were not. Chen and his friends missed the family by about 15 minutes.)

Sharon MacDonnell had more luck as she waited for her son to walk across the stage. She was about as close as was possible to the Obamas as they walked out early from the ceremony.

“I came over to see him and then I spotted all the guys in suits,” said MacDonnell, who snapped some good photos of the former president. She said as a USC alumna, it was particularly special to see the former first family there.

Sasha was just 7 years old when her family moved into the White House in 2009. In 2019, she graduated from high school in Washington, D.C., two years after her father's two terms as president. She initially attended the University of Michigan but transferred to USC.

Malia Obama also lives in L.A., where she's working in the film industry.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.