He's The First African Elected Student Body President At University Of North Carolina Chapel Hill : Goats and Soda Bradley Opere is the first African to hold the office at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Along the way, he's learned a lot about politics, race — and football.

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

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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.

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