(HENLEY-ON-KLIP, South Africa) — To most people Oprah Winfrey is known as one of the world’s most powerful media moguls. But to the students who attend her Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy in South Africa, she’s simply “Mom Oprah.”
Like any parent, Winfrey beamed and cried as she watched 72 of her “daughters,” the school’s first class, graduate today.
The young women were dressed impeccably in a uniform of white dresses and matching white heels. They sang a song of gratitude and celebration in Zulu, a South African language. Family and friends cheered as each girl accepted her diploma.
“The pride that I feel today is overpowering,” Winfrey said during her graduation speech. “I have been on a mission my whole life to be able to give back what I have been given. Today I am fulfilling that mission.”
The opening of the $40 million school, which is located an hour outside of Johannesburg in the small town of Henley-on-Klip, opened in 2007. Since its opening, the academy has faced challenges including accusations of abuse from a school official and the birth of a dead baby to one of the students. Even with the controversies, all but three of the original class of students is graduating, and all the graduates have been accepted to college.
Winfrey has invested her money and time into the project, insuring that the students have everything they need to concentrate on their education. The school is spread over 52 acres and features world-class amenities, including a state of the art library and fully-equipped dorm rooms.
Some of the 400 girls come from homes so poor they didn’t even have their own beds. Mashadi Kekana grew up in Alexandria, one of South Africa’s most impoverished and violent townships. During her interview five years ago, she told Winfrey that if she was accepted she would never let the talk show host down.
Today Kekana graduated as one of the school’s top students and will be heading to the United States to attend Wellesley College in Massachusetts next fall on a full scholarship.
“Mom Oprah, thank you for showing us that we’re not just girls, but girls who have greater purpose in this world,” said Kekana in her graduation address as Winfrey’s eyes welled up with tears.
Winfrey stressed that even though the journey at her school is ending for these young women, she expects them to achieve even greater accomplishments in college and beyond.
“When you invest in the leadership of girls you invest in a nation,” said Winfrey. “Every one of these girls is going to serve themselves, their family, community and country in ways that are yet to amaze you.”
Education for girls in Sub-Saharan Africa lags far behind the rest of the world. About one in three girls finish high school, according to the South African government.
Tabitha Ramotwala, a graduate who recently found out she was accepted to Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, told ABC News she believes the success of Winfrey’s school “shows the world that there’s a lot of potential that can be tapped into.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Sugam Pokharel and AJ Willingham, CNN
Alanna Petroff, CNN