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Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy Girls Graduate

Media mogul and iconic talk show host Oprah Winfrey (C) poses with students of her school's first graduating class at Henley On Klip, outside Johannesburg, January 14, 2012.
Media mogul and iconic talk show host Oprah Winfrey (C) poses with students of her school's first graduating class at Henley On Klip, outside Johannesburg, January 14, 2012.

In 2007, the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy opened its doors to academically gifted, underprivileged girls in South Africa. On Saturday, the first class graduated, with a 100 percent pass rate.

A proud mother. That is how Oprah Winfrey has described herself, as she watches the Class of 2011 leave the nest. The girls are the first batch to graduate from the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy, in Johannesburg’s south. And the American media mogul has reason to be proud. The school boasts a perfect pass rate, and all of the girls have secured spots at universities, either in South Africa or the United States.

“The thing that I’m most proud of is not the academics, the academics I expected," said Oprah Winfrey. "The thing I’m most proud of is that everyone’s been accepted to college, and everyone’s going and we’ve created a support system to make that happen. But even more important than that, everyone walks out of here with the grace and dignity from which they were raised. Their integrity, their character, their grace and their kindness is what every parent would wish, that’s what you want, as a parent.”

The school’s concept arose from a conversation Winfrey had with former South African president Nelson Mandela years ago.

“When I had the conversation with Madiba in his living room, our conversation revolved around how do we end poverty. This is how we do it. This is the beginning of the ending of poverty," she said. "These girls have now broken the cycle of poverty in their families, being the first to go on to college and to do whatever they choose to do - key word, what they choose to do - with their lives, they no longer have to accept the standard that their mothers and their forefathers had to bear, because there were not the opportunities.”

Education is currently in the spotlight in South Africa, where a number of students who leave school are not able to gain admission to universities, either because their grades are not good enough, or tertiary institutions are full for the year. Recently, a mother was killed in a stampede outside the University of Johannesburg as she lined up, hoping to register her son. Winfrey says there is a lesson to be learned from her academy’s success.

“This model was created specifically to say to South Africa, if you invest in leadership, not just in schools, not just in passing tests, not just in trying to get the exams, but you invest in leadership, the leadership will pay off to your communities and to your nation,” she added.

All of the academy’s Grade 12 students have been accepted to universities either in South Africa, or abroad. Most of them have graduated from high school with distinctions in multiple subjects. Now, it is with great excitement - and a bit of fear - that they leave their academic home. But Mashadi Kekana says she is prepared for the road ahead.

“I do feel pressure, pressure from myself, pressure from family, from the school - even though I’m not here anymore after this, pressure from my community," said Kekana. "But one thing I’ve noticed about OWLA girls, is that pressure makes us thrive. And as human beings, everybody reaches a point where they ask, am I good enough. And thanks to Mum Oprah and the support team we have here at school, the answer to that question now after five years is yes, I am good enough.”

As these girls take the next step on their life journey, a support system has been put in place. Advisors will be available to them, as they learn to manage their own lives and finances, and plan their futures. And for all of them, the future appears decidedly brighter, since Oprah Winfrey stepped into their lives.