Get to Know Provost Oparah
This story is a reprint from the SF Foghorn highlighting Provost Oparah, her life story, and motivations to make change in the community. The McCarthy Center’s overseeing of community engaged learning focuses our operation directly under the office of the provost. Read more from the SF Foghorn about Oparah, her passions and how she joined the Office of the Provost.
We know Chinyere Oparah as our first Black, female, and openly queer provost, but she is also a medieval language scholar, anti-apartheid activist, and nonprofit organizer. She spoke with the Foghorn about how she got to the Hilltop, her achievements from her first year serving as provost, and her plans for the future.
Oparah’s previous experience in higher education leadership came from 24 years at Mills College in Oakland, California, where she acted as a professor of ethnic studies and provost.
Over the past year, she has begun to implement changes at USF with values of justice and collaboration at the forefront. “Education has to be about the pursuit of justice. Otherwise, we’re educating for the status quo,” she said.
She started the faculty diversity hiring initiative, which resulted in the hiring of 70% BIPOC faculty last year. The Provost’s office, politics Professor Kouslaa Kessler-Mata, and Erin Bringham from the Ignatian Leaders Engaging in Action and Discernment Center, started an Indigenous engagement initiative to connect the University to the Ohlone Tribe, who were forcibly removed from the land that USF now occupies.
The Provost’s office has also supported the SONHP in creating a new BS in Public Health.
Oparah created the Provost’s Circle, an advocacy group with members from every college on campus. They have worked on creating improvements to the process for transfer students, and plan to tackle a number of issues in the coming years.
The Foghorn learned more about how her life story has prepared her to be provost.
Born in Scotland to a Nigerian father and English mother, Oparah spent her early months in the foster system. In an article for USF Magazine, she said, “my mother was not supposed to be pregnant with a Black child, so I was almost immediately put into the foster system.”
She was adopted by an English family and grew up in a small town in the south of England. “I always had a sense of having come from somewhere else,” she said. “The town was very predominantly white, and there were very few people who looked like me in my school.”
Things changed for Oparah when she enrolled at University of Cambridge. As a member of the South African Bursary Project organization, Oparah participated in a fundraiser to support South African students living under apartheid. “That was a real education, because I got to sit in a room with these very radical and active South African students, who were really educating me about everything from the history of apartheid, to colonization, to racism, to social justice.”
After graduating from Cambridge with a BA in modern and medieval languages, Oparah became a community development officer for the City of Cambridge and later became the executive director for a national development agency supporting the Black nonprofit sector in London.
“I wanted to get out in the community and make change. I was doing a lot of work around racial justice, anti-poverty, and youth work,” she said. “And then I decided that all along the way I just loved education.” She went back to the University of Warwick and got her PhD in the sociology of race and ethnicity.
For her next professional move Oparah pulled inspiration from each part of her life’s work. “So on the one hand, I’m doing grassroots racial justice work, working around gender equity, working in the community, and on the other hand, I just love education. I’ve always had a love and a passion for education, because I could see how transformative it could be” she said.
She taught at UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, and Mills College before coming to USF.
“I’ve always known that, for me, my passion in education would be about access. So making sure that everyone has access to an extraordinary education. And that is not only for the elite few, right?”
In August of 2021 she began her first academic year as provost at USF. She said the University’s Jesuit identity was a big draw for her.
“I had been for 24 years at a secular institution and women’s college that put racial and gender justice at the center of everything that we did. That spoke to my values, but there was always this gap,” she said. “I’m very much somebody who practices meditation and prayer. I always say to myself, ‘Well, God is my employer. So what’s my job?’”
Oparah acknowledges that some might be surprised to hear that a Catholic university has an “out, racially and gender justice focused provost,” but, she said, “It’s very Jesuit to be radically inclusive.
“I feel at home here. I want to be out about all aspects of my identity so that others who share those pieces of those identities can also feel that they are at home. Hopefully, I can use my identity as a way to create an open door for belonging and inclusion.”
Despite her achievements, Oparah admitted that due to staffing concerns, her office is farther behind on its agenda than she would like.
“We couldn’t hit everything that we wanted to last year. Now this year, we can actually get into it. For example, we started the Latinx Excellence and Belonging Initiative last semester” she said. “I would love to already have their recommendations and already be implementing them. There’s so many things that the strategic plan I’d love to already be doing.”
Going into her second academic year at USF, Oparah is looking forward to connecting with the student body. “One of the things that I had set the intention last year was to kind of create some kind of advisory council of students, a space where students could hear some of the Provost office initiatives and weigh in on creating their own educational journey. I’m really excited to spend a little bit more time with students.”
The Foghorn will continue its coverage of the Provost’s initiatives as they are released.
Megan Robertson is the Foghorn’s news editor and a third-year media studies and performing arts and social justice double major. She covers breaking campus news and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.