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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Ndiritu Has Sought to Make a Difference in His Time as SGA President

By Brendan O'Hallarn

A shout of recognition makes the short walk through Old Dominion University's Webb University Center a bit more leisurely. "Christopher! I'm sorry I missed your birthday!" a student in a navy blue Old Dominion polo shirt calls from behind the information center desk.

During a quick conversation, they make plans for a social outing, and Student Government Association president Christopher Ndiritu resumes his walk to North Mall, only to be interrupted a few minutes later by a student with a question about the previous night's mayoral forum. Any conversation with Ndiritu features a steady stream of polite interruptions and subtle waves as friends walk past.

It's fair to say that the two-term SGA president, who graduated May 7 with a degree in public health, has made the most of his time at Old Dominion. "The opportunities here are everywhere," Ndiritu said.

Born in Kenya, Ndiritu lived his first eight years in its capital, Nairobi. His father decided that the family would move to the United States and made trips back and forth from Africa to America to find the ideal location for the family.

Speaking the East African languages of Swahili and Kikuyu, Ndiritu had just started learning English when the family moved to Richmond, Virginia. It was a challenge for Ndiritu and his older brother, Kennedy. (Younger brother Allan was born in Richmond in 2004.) But the family also recognized the tremendous gift the Ndiritu boys had been given to grow up in America.

Ndiritu has sought every way to get involved and make a difference, because many of his childhood friends have not had the same opportunities.

"I am a Kenyan at heart. I am who I am right now because of where I'm from," he said. "At the same time, I 100 percent recognize that I have opportunities now that I would not have had there. It makes me appreciate them more, and gives me humility and a big heart."

His father still splits time between Kenya and the United States, and will arrive in time for his son's graduation after having spent two years in Africa.

As a first-generation college student, Ndiritu has felt pressure to succeed in the classroom. But it was his decision to get involved outside the classroom that made the biggest difference for him. "I almost wanted to give up my first semester here. I had my lowest GPA of any semester."

Ndiritu's journey to political involvement started with a fever.

Waking up one cold winter day with a temperature of 104, Ndiritu made his way to the Student Health Center with the help of a roommate. He was dismayed to find out that it didn't take walk-in patients.

"I remember saying to myself, 'I am going to change this,'" Ndiritu said. Within a few weeks, he had met with Jenny Foss of Student Health Services, and morning walk-in hours began. "When I got the email (about the policy change), it was so exciting," he said.

Ndiritu had previously struck up a friendship with Kevin Muchiri, then the student representative on the Old Dominion University Board of Visitors. Muchiri encouraged him to get involved in SGA, and once Ndiritu's appetite for student activism had been whetted, it became his passion.

For his presidential campaign, Ndiritu launched the Monarchs Rising Up movement with former SGA vice president Carina Wicker, a peer-to-peer advocacy campaign against sexual assault and harassment. Organizers created a video featuring student leaders imploring fellow Monarchs to create a culture of tolerance, respect and safety.

"I think it's important for everyone to speak about these issues. The message resonates powerfully when it's men and women speaking with one voice to stand up against sexual assault," Ndiritu said.

The impact of an intemperate remark or a thoughtless picture or video is another thing that Ndiritu has tried to emphasize in his time as SGA president. "We wanted to make sure our students know the impact that social media can have. It's one of the reasons people falsely have the perception that ODU isn't safe," he said.

Many student leaders go on to careers in elected politics, including a famous one who also shares Kenyan roots.

After eye-opening visits to lobby the General Assembly on behalf of Virginia students, Ndiritu decided that isn't for him. "I thought to myself after seeing the lobbying that this is not what I want to do, ever."

This summer, Ndiritu will move to Knoxville to pursue a master's degree from the University of Tennessee in college student personnel, also serving as an assistant hall director for university housing.

He wants to be a university president one day, and would like to run a campus as diverse and open as Old Dominion University.

"The faculty and staff here are remarkable," Ndiritu said. "I have such a close connection with (President John R.) Broderick. I can email him at 11 p.m. and get a response by 11:05. And Ellen Neufeldt (vice president of student engagement and enrollment services) and Don Stansberry (dean of students) are like my parents on campus. They've challenged me in my role as SGA president."

Neufeldt said Ndiritu has been a "true champion" for the students of Old Dominion University.

"He cares about every student and has initiated some of the most impactful programs we have seen on this campus, especially in the areas of inclusivity and sexual violence prevention," Neufeldt said.

"These programs have been incredibly successful and highly relevant, and have been a centerpiece for student advocacy, due in large part to Chris' leadership."

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