Maya Soetoro-Ng grew up on a bridge between worlds. Not only did she travel throughout South Asia with her anthropologist mother, but she also got the chance to explore the world of ideas and possibilities at private school in Hawaii.
She was mostly home-schooled by her peripatetic mother until they moved from Indonesia to Hawaii when she was 14. At private school in Honolulu, she gained an academic edge and explored new interests, from tennis and drama to photography and philosophy.
"It emphasized communication, speech, presentation and the healthy debate of ideas and current events, and in doing so, helped me to be a public person and made me feel like the world was very large..."
“Punahou School encouraged in me a lot of expression and creative exploration that has allowed me to build bridges more effectively,” says the 40-year-old mother of two girls. “It emphasized communication, speech, presentation and the healthy debate of ideas and current events, and in doing so, helped me to be a public person and made me feel like the world was very large... I think that people should feel grateful for the choice provided in a private education.”
Soetoro-Ng is an educator with a PhD in education, author of the bestselling children’s book Ladder to the Moon, and co-founder of Our Public School, a non-profit group working to improve public education. She and U.S. President Barack Obama, who both got scholarships to attend the prestigious private school, share the same mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, an anthropologist from Wichita, Kansas.
Both her family and the Obamas have chosen to send their children to private schools. In a way, she believes private school helped her Nobel Peace Prize-winning brother aspire to greatness.
“They pushed you to be the best version of yourself, and I’m sure it helped to make my brother into a stronger, more ambitious person,” says Soetoro-Ng in an interview from Honolulu after she and her family visited the Obamas and other relatives in Washington and Canada during the summer. “(Obama) was also involved in sports, and this gave him an athletic discipline that continues to this day. He still works out every day and loves playing basketball—all of that helps to keep him sane. And we both had some very dedicated teachers who really wanted us to learn and who encouraged us.”
Even as president of the United States, Obama always looks forward to visiting his old friends from Punahou when he returns to Hawaii for Christmas. Most of all, private school was a place that helped both him and his half-sister reinforce some lessons and dreams from their late mother.
“We were very lucky to have so many opportunities and so many choices emerge from our childhood because of having had such a solid foundation,” Soetoro-Ng says.