Dunham moved to Hawaii to attend the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where she studied anthropology. There she met Barack Obama Sr., a graduate student from Kenya. When they became engaged, both sets of parents opposed the marriage, with Barack Sr.'s father in particular objecting.
Dunham has been described by her friends as "a fellow traveler... We were liberals before we knew what liberals were," and as "the original feminist".
In 1992 she earned a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Hawai'i. Her dissertation, "Peasant blacksmithing in Indonesia: Surviving and Thriving Against All Odds," was 1067 pages long.