The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls—South Africa is a boarding school for grades 7–12. It is the school of Oprah's dreams, but to make it a reality, she has to find the perfect students. "This is a school for leaders," Oprah says. "This is a school for powerful girls who will use their power in service to their nation and to our world."
The Search Begins
Teams from the school worked tirelessly recruiting applicants in the rural areas of South Africa. "We wanted girls living in places where they would never had a chance such as this one," Oprah says.
Teachers quickly began telling their most promising students about the school. Students like 13-year-old Lesego (above, left) see the school as their destiny. "I know for a fact that I'm going to get into that school," she says. "Come hell or high waters, I am going to this school."
A Flood of Applications
The academy staff sent out 5,500 applications, and an astounding 3,500 were returned. Each girl had to write an essay describing her dreams for the future and draw her dream house. Overall, 484 girls were chosen for interviews and academic testing. In the end, only 152 girls would make the cut.
A Once-in-a-Lifetime Day
The girls travel from all nine South African provinces to St. John's College in Johannesburg for a weekend of testing and evaluation. The day begins in an auditorium, where Oprah's words motivate the girls to do their best.
"I have to really, really do my best if I want to make it because there's some girls that have a lot of potential there," Thando says.
The next morning, the girls begin their day of testing and interviews. They are evaluated on both academic and leadership skills. One of the most important things the staff wants to find out is whether the girls could work together and solve problems. Put in discussion groups, it isn't long before leaders begin to emerge.
Throughout the day, Oprah's team interviews every single girl, but none of the girls know that Oprah herself will be conducting their final interview!
Two Sisters Survive Tragedy
Throughout the day, Oprah meets girls who have endured the unimaginable. Two of those girls are sisters Sade (left) and Megan (right). As 5- and 6-year-olds, the girls watched their father shoot their mother and then shoot himself. Oprah says she fell in love with them instantly.
When Sade walks into the room, Oprah says the outgoing younger sister is like "walking sunshine." Although Sade exudes pure energy, Oprah finds that Megan has a quiet inner strength. "You can tell that she has been through a lot and that she takes the responsibility of looking after her sister," Oprah says. "Knowing her history ... you just can't even imagine. Where does that light come from?"
One by one, the girls open the door not knowing what to expect. "They would walk in and sit and compose themselves with such a fortified sense of self," Oprah says.
Above all, Oprah is looking for girls with a special quality she calls "it." "When you see somebody with it, you know they have it," Oprah says. "All of these girls have a striking kind of beauty that is an energy that you can feel coming from them," Oprah says. She sees that energy in Eunice. "There was an energy in her eyes that I thought I was looking at myself," she says. "That was a powerful moment for me."
The Women Who Gave Oprah Strength
Like so many girls of Africa, it was Oprah's grandmother, Hattie Mae Lee, who gave her strength. She raised Oprah on a small plot of land in Kosciusko, Mississippi, until Oprah was 6 years old.
Oprah still remembers watching her grandmother hang clothes on the line. "She said to me, 'You better watch me now, Oprah Gail, because one day you're going to have to learn to do this for yourself,'" Oprah says. "There was just a spirit inside myself that said, 'No, grandmama, I won't.' And I was about 4 years old at the time."
Oprah credits her grandmother with instilling in her the importance of education—the path to possibility. "My grandmother really raised me to be who I am because of her belief in education," Oprah says. "Even though she wasn't very educated, never finished high school, she was strong."
Oprah believes Hattie Mae Lee's spirit lives on in every grandmother caring for their grandchildren in South Africa. "I believe just like my grandmother was a very powerful woman [and] stepped in and took care of me, so are all the other grandmothers in Africa who are stepping in and raising to the best of their ability, their grandchildren," Oprah says.
The Question Only One Girl Asks
It is the question that every potential student has on her mind, but only one girl is brave enough to ask. "As you see me," Charlene says. "Do you think that I'm good enough to be selected to go to the school?"
After a small pause, Oprah replies. "I think that you are good enough," she says.
Oprah says everyone has wondered that at one time. "That is the ultimate question that all of us ask of ourselves and of our lives—am I good enough?" she says. "And this little girl had the courage to ask that question."
Oprah meets many girls passionate about education, but perhaps none as intense as Lesego. Embracing the upcoming interview, Lesego says, "This is my chance. I'm going to sink into it like nobody's business."
Lesego loves school and is already becoming a leader. She teaches a poetry class to other students after school. Although she lives with her father in a home with no indoor plumbing and a caved-in ceiling, she doesn't consider herself disadvantaged. "I've got this spunk," Lesego says. "I've got this flame inside me that's waiting to burst."
Oprah sees that spark during their interview as they discuss the book Lesego is currently reading: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. "It's really fantastic," she says. "It's got that edge to it."
An Amazing Promise
The academy hopefuls understand the power of an education and how it can change their lives. They are already dreaming about the future and wonder how they will be able to attend university after they graduate high school.
Oprah makes an amazing promise during her interview with Koketso that brings the young girl to tears. "I'm going to make it possible for every one of the girls who goes to this academy to go to the college or university of her choice, wherever they choose in the world," Oprah says.
'They're So Brave'
Many of the girls Oprah speaks to have stayed strong in devastating circumstances, but let their guards down with Oprah, often tearing up. Oprah offers every one of them a hug and lets them hold on for as long as they need to. "Oh God, they're so brave," Oprah says. "I will be stronger because of these girls. My heart aches for every one of them."
After the interviews are over, Oprah and her team examine each girl's academic performance and leadership potential.
They make their decision after considering every possible aspect of each girl. "The most painful thing is not being able to let every girl that you saw in," Oprah says.
Oprah's Dream Girls
A few weeks later, some of the girls are invited back for what they think will be an important final interview. Oprah asks everyone to join her on stage, and says, "I brought you all here today to tell you that you will be a part of the very first class of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy!"
Oprah says in this moment, she realizes why she never had children. "Because I now have all of these daughters," she says.
One Last Admission
One girl was missing from the celebration. The car sent to pick up Thando was late, and she arrives at an empty building. "I was very worried when I came in late and then I was told to answer a phone," she says.
It's Oprah! "I'm so sorry I missed you, but I wanted you to come because I wanted to tell you that you are accepted to the school," Oprah says.
Thando thanks Oprah and lets out an ear-piercing scream as soon as she hangs up. "I made it into the school!" she says.
On January 2, 2007, after years of dreaming, Oprah and her students cut the ribbon to open the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls—South Africa.
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