Oprah Winfrey’s parental pride was on full display on Saturday as 72 young girls graduated from the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy in Henley on Klip, South Africa. Her glee was completely understandable, since it was the first graduating class for the school Winfrey founded in 2007.
Winfrey’s steadfast and earnest desire to better the lives of South African girls was met with both admiration and ridicule when she announced her intentions to build a lavish girls school in 2005. Many seemed unaware or dismissive of the millions Winfrey donates each year to institutions such Morehouse College in Atlanta. Rarely deterred by her critics, Winfrey used more than $40 million of her own fortune to create a state-of-the-art campus that features, among other luxuries, a 600-seat theater for concerts and plays, a full-service hair salon, and a 10,000-volume library.
In 2006, I spent a week traveling with Winfrey in South Africa, where I watched her choose the very same girls who graduated last weekend. I can only imagine the pride and joy she felt while watching 72 of the 75 girls who entered receive their diplomas. While some complained that Winfrey’s many millions of dollars and vast resources would be better spent here in the United States, I defy anyone to travel to the regions of South Africa where Winfrey journeyed and not be moved to action by the stifling poverty, pain, and struggle of black South Africans. Winfrey’s numerous trips to the area and subsequent long-term friendship with Nelson Mandela no doubt influenced her desire to make a difference in a place haunted by the lingering impact of apartheid and crippled by mass inequality and AIDS.
As we traveled through cities and townships in search of Type A girls, Winfrey listened (often with glassy eyes) for hours on end to the somber tales of preteen girls orphaned by disease, under developed due to lack of nutrition, and crushed by lack of options and opportunity. For many of the young applicants the chance to meet “Mama Oprah’’ was surpassed by the joy of experiencing a rare hot meal, a gift of warm clothes and an actual bed for overnight lodging—all courtesy of the “famous American talk-show queen.” Winfrey called all prospective students “my girls’’ and left little to chance as she put her stamp of approval on every decision made for her fledging new project. I watched as she carefully chose dorm-room paint colors that would mesh effortlessly with the varying South African tribal colors used on bedspreads, curtains, and rugs. And she mulled over the actual patterns of the plates the students would eat on and the accompanying silverware. Nothing could be too good for Winfrey’s girls, and she would regularly be on hand to make sure of that. Still, like most doting mothers, she couldn’t protect them from everything. Incidents such as a dormitory matron being charged with abusing a number of students rocked the school early on, while the discovery of a dead infant on campus (apparently a student hid her pregnancy) caused another media frenzy last year.
Neither tragic event dampened Winfrey’s desire to accomplish her goal of empowering young women. In a country where the best schools public or private are still dominated by whites, Winfrey knew she’d have to provide much more than an exceptional environment for leadership and learning. She understood the need for a place that patiently nurtured young women far too familiar with doing without and the mindset that often accompanies that feeling. Winfrey grew up a poor minority girl as well, struggling to overcome the many roadblocks in her way. To prepare her students for the world they'll soon face, Winfrey made sure they were well versed in the basics of biology, math, literature, and science. Yet she didn't stop there—to stress the connection between solid self-esteem and personal success, she regularly flew in a variety of expert women from fields such as psychology and health care to teach and demonstrate the benefits of being poised, self-confident, and polished women.
At graduation services Saturday, an openly emotional Winfrey told the students, “We’re taking a victory lap here, for transformation. Every single girl is going to leave here with something greater to offer the world than her body.’’ Six years ago Winfrey couldn’t stop smiling as she walked the massive grounds of her soon to open school, no doubt imagining what the future would hold for the students that would one day attend. This past weekend she witnessed “her girls’’ take their first steps into a future filled with all the hope and light “Mama Oprah” could provide.