Photo: Benny Gool/Harpo
Oprah has had many dreams over the years, and one of her most ambitious was fulfilled this January when the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls graduated its first senior class. The idea for the school was sparked more than a decade ago, in a conversation over tea with Nelson Mandela at his home in Qunu, South Africa. When he said that poverty could be defeated through education, Oprah agreed, musing that she would like to build a school in South Africa one day. Mandela arranged a meeting with the education minister—that evening!—to discuss Oprah's plans. "I really thought one day I would build the school," she said in her speech at graduation. "I didn't mean that day."
Seven years and more than $40 million later, the academy—a boarding school with a 52-acre campus, a high-tech computer lab, a wellness center, and a library housing 10,000 books and a cozy fireplace—opened in Henley-on-Klip, South Africa. After an admissions process that included an interview with Oprah, the school accepted 152 seventh and eighth graders—tuition-free. (Since then, the student body has more than doubled.)
Though the girls shrieked with delight when they first saw their dorms, adjusting to this new world wasn't easy. "Most of us had never been away from our families," said Mashadi Kekana, a student bound for Wellesley College, in Wellesley, Massachusetts, at the graduation ceremony. "We came to school with different languages, beliefs, religious practices, mind-sets, and experiences." In addition, the students had to learn how to handle rigorous coursework in areas like science and technology as well as economics, which required that they travel to places like the Johannesburg produce market for real-world lessons in commerce. "The bar is set so high," Kekana said. "Or as Mom-Oprah [as many of the students call her] puts it, 'There is no bar.'"
Since many of the students come from backgrounds marked by poverty and trauma, Oprah built a strong support network of teachers, psychologists, and social workers to help the girls succeed academically and heal emotionally. "This school was founded on the principle of Ubuntu, 'I am because we are,'" Oprah said in her graduation address. "This spirit has allowed us to not just build a school but create a family foundation."
The students' hard work paid off—all 72 graduates earned full college scholarships—but their victories transcended academics. "When I came to school, I thought opportunities were meant for other people—people who are more confident, more articulate," says Tabitha Ramotwala, a graduating senior set to attend Mount Holyoke College, in South Hadley, Massachusetts. "But the academy helped me find my confidence, and I even applied for leadership training. I became more in tune with myself."
On the night before graduation, Oprah dropped in on the students' pajama party in one of the school's residence halls, where they shared pizza and watched footage of their entrance interviews. "It was so funny—we're ladylike now, but in the interviews we weren't so polished," Ramotwala says. "We came to the academy in 2007 with a myopic view of the world," recalled Kekana at graduation. "But Mom-Oprah showed us that we're not just girls—we're girls who have greater purpose."
The next morning, the students assembled in the academy's theater for what would be the last time. During the ceremony, the class's a cappella group performed the song "Vuka Uzenzele," swaying to the rhythm in their airy white dresses; former First Lady of South Africa Graça Machel delivered a keynote address, exhorting the girls to "drive social change"; and Oprah gave a tearful speech. "We are in the leadership-building business," she said. "We want every girl to leave here knowing who she is—and that is what has happened."
Near the end of the ceremony, the graduates stepped forward, one by one, to receive their diplomas and pose for a picture with Oprah as the audience applauded wildly. Then the students filed out of the auditorium to the strains of "Ode to Joy." Oprah gathered them for pictures on the lush campus under a tranquil blue sky, the afternoon sun on their faces. At first they posed, but on Oprah's cue, they let loose and threw their hands in the air, the girls' smiles shining as brightly as their futures.
Next: Behind the Scenes: Graduation Photos
We Hear You!