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

Bradley Opere, student body president at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, is a trailblazer in a blazer.
Jason Beaubien
Bradley Opere, student body president at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, is a trailblazer in a blazer.

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.

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Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.