KETR

Kenyan 'Wonk' Breaks Barriers As Student Body Prez At UNC

Nov 20, 2016
Originally published on November 21, 2016 3:54 pm

He wasn't sure he had the right name to run for student body president at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

His first name was pretty ordinary — Bradley. But his last name is Opere — definitely not a familiar-sounding name in the U.S.

"You have to have a white-sounding name to run for office," says Opere, a business major who's from Nairobi, Kenya. The ambitious 24-year-old ran anyway.

And with his air of quiet confidence – and the skills he gained from two-years spent at the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg — he won 53 percent of the vote.

Walking across the campus at UNC, Opere in his dark blue blazer stands out amid a sea of Tarheels t-shirts and baggy sweatpants. "I manage about 250 people every day," says Opere, who's now a senior, about his role as the head of student government at the prestigious public university.

Opere has quickly become comfortable with the lingo of American college life. He trash talks UNC's archrival Duke University. He's developed an appreciation for basketball and football.

"UNC is doing really well this football season — if we have to call it football," he says.

Like many Africans, Opere is a big fan of the other type of football and even plays on an intramural team at UNC.

"I play soccer a lot. I'm a midfielder, an attacking midfielder," he adds.

He's also learned a lot about how race in America is very different than in his homeland.

"You know you look at race when you grow up in Kenya purely from a colonialism perspective," he says. "It's historical."

Then he went to post-apartheid South Africa where the sting of the racist apartheid system is still raw and present.

"In South Africa it [race] is staring at you. You could clearly see it with the economic differences across different places."

Then he landed in North Carolina.

"You quickly learn that you've become black [in the U.S.], which isn't really an experience that you get when you are in predominantly black countries like South Africa or Kenya," he says with a laugh.

His stint at the African Leadership Academy, which aims to train the next generation of African leaders, was a turning point.

"I'd finished high school in Kenya. I got really good grades and I just didn't have any joy off of that," he says. He was antsy and looking for a new direction. "I was reading about a school in South Africa and they said they want to develop the next generation of African leaders and I thought that's something that not a lot of schools are saying their vision wants to be."

The two-year private prep school has a pan-African focus, seeking to train African leaders to tackle Africa's biggest challenges. The curriculum is heavy on entrepreneurship, African politics and African history.

The school has a hefty price tag of $30,000 a year although it offers a lot of financial aid — and a loan forgiveness program for alumni who commit to live in Africa after college.

Opere says he'd go back whether his loans were forgiven or not. He wants to make an impact on his home continent.

"The American dream isn't there for billions of other people all over the world," he says. "As much as life may be good here, easier here, there are other areas that also need to develop as much, leap as much and that are also beautiful in their own different ways."

The campaign at UNC was Opere's second run for student body president. At the African Leadership Academy, he was elected the head of student government.

His rival in the race at the ALA, Goodman Lepota, is now studying at Marist College in New York. When Lepota heard that Opere was running at UNC, he volunteered to be Opere's campaign strategist from 600 miles away.

Lepota, who grew up in an impoverished township in Johannesburg, affectionately calls Opere a "wonk."

"He focuses on policy details," Lepota says. "I remember when he was at ALA he created an honor council and he spent the entire summer drafting how the honor council was going to operate."

Opere wanted the honor council to serve as a forum to resolve disciplinary issues that previously had been handled by the dean's office.

"A lot of people were either getting expelled from school or getting in a lot of trouble," Lepota says. "And he felt the students could take the responsibility to discipline themselves."

Opere has a lot of ideas about what he might do after UNC — maybe work as a diplomat or go in to business or possibly stay in politics. What he is clear on is that he wants to return home to be part of what he calls a "wave of change" in Africa.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill has a student body president who is easy to spot on campus. He's the one usually wearing a blazer amid a sea of Tarheels T-shirts. His name is Bradley Opere. The business major from Nairobi also stands out and that he is the first African elected to the position at UNC. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: As he walks across campus at UNC, Bradley Opere moves through the crowds with a quiet confidence.

BRADLEY OPERE: I haven't seen you since, like, we went...

BEAUBIEN: As he crossed the quad, the young Kenyan trash talks neighboring and he plugs UNC's powerhouse sports teams.

OPERE: UNC's doing really, really well this football season, if we have to call it football.

BEAUBIEN: Like many Africans, Opere is more at home with the other type of football.

OPERE: I play soccer a lot. I'm a midfielder. I'm an attacking midfield.

BEAUBIEN: So how did a guy who grew up on the outskirts of Nairobi end up as student body president at one of the top universities in America? Well, he got there by way of Johannesburg. Opere credits a small, relatively-new prep school in South Africa called the African Leadership Academy.

OPERE: I had finished high school in Kenya. I got really, really good grades within the country. And I just did not have any joy off of that. And then I was reading about a school in South Africa. It said they wanted to develop the next generation of African leaders. And I was like, oh, that's something not a lot of schools is saying about what the vision wants to be.

BEAUBIEN: Opere ended up at UNC just before the Black Lives Matter movement swept across campus. Having lived in Kenya and South Africa, he brought a different perspective on race to his campaign for student body president.

OPERE: You know, you look at race when you grew up in Kenya purely from a colonialism perspective.

BEAUBIEN: It was all historical, in the past. Then in post-apartheid South Africa, people were still grappling with race but in a very different way than what he saw when he landed in North Carolina.

OPERE: You quickly learn that you become black, which isn't really an experience that you get when you're in predominantly-black countries like South Africa or Kenya.

BEAUBIEN: And he says all of a sudden being black affected how he ran his election campaign. He had to think about some difficult things.

OPERE: From how pictures are supposed to look, like from how you need to use a white-sounding name to run for office. You see all those things that are affecting you very, very distinctly.

BEAUBIEN: That campaign at UNC was actually Opere's second run for student body president. When he was at the African Leadership Academy, he also was elected the head of student government. His rival in that race at the ALA, Goodman Lepota, is now studying at Marist College in New York. When Lepota heard that Opere was running at UNC, he volunteered to be Opere's campaign strategist from 600 miles away. Lepota affectionately calls Opere a wonk.

GOODMAN LEPOTA: He focuses on policy detail. I remember when he was in ALA, he created an honor council. And he spent the entire summer adjusting how the honor council was going to operate.

BEAUBIEN: The honor council served as a forum to resolve disciplinary issues that previously had been handled by the dean's office.

LEPOTA: A lot of people were either getting expelled from school or, you know, had just been in a lot of trouble. And he felt that considering, you know, what the mission of the school was, which was to develop the next generation of African leaders, that the students could take the responsibility to actually discipline themselves.

BEAUBIEN: Opere has a lot of ideas about what he might do after UNC - maybe work as a diplomat or go into business or possibly stay in politics. What he is clear on is that he wants to return home to be part of what he calls a wave of change in Africa. Jason Beaubien, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.