Oprah Graduates First Class From African School

What do you get when you cross one of the richest and most influential women in the world with a largely impoverished nation? You get the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls located in South Africa. Despite doubts and criticisms, the Academy recently reached a milestone as it celebrated its first graduating class.

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Building a Dream

According to 2010 data gathered by the International Monetary Fund and the CIA World Factbook, 9 out of 10 of the poorest countries in the world are found in Africa. Perhaps it was the fact that she herself came from a poor upbringing, but whatever her motivations, Oprah Winfrey decided several years ago to provide an educational opportunity to promising young girls in and around Johannesburg, South Africa.

The planning for the school began back in 2002, after Oprah spoke with Nelson Mandela, an anti-apartheid activist and former President of South Africa, in 2000. During that conversation, Oprah told Mandela, 'I want to create a school for smart girls who will lead this country into glory.'

In January 2007, the $40 million dream became reality when the Leadership Academy officially opened. In addition to classrooms and dormitories, the campus includes a library, theater and even a beauty salon. The grounds are decorated with paintings, sculptures and murals.

Approximately 150 seventh- and eighth-grade students (the ultimate goal is to enroll 450) began classes designed to prepare them for further education and possible roles as leaders within their communities and beyond. The curriculum includes languages, arts and culture, natural and social sciences, technology and life orientation.

'Teach a Girl, Teach a Nation'

The Academy was built on the premise that nurturing young girls who had shown academic and civic potential could lead to them becoming future leaders and affecting change in a nation that desperately needs such reformative leadership.

If the confidence of the school's first graduating class is any indication, the school has been successful in reaching its goal. When Oprah told students that 'when you teach a girl, you teach a nation,' a graduating student, one of 72, said, 'The first class, my class, will prove that.'

And they just might. Every student in the graduating class is going on to study at universities in and outside of South Africa, including some in the United States. More than a dozen students have been awarded full scholarships. And many are already speaking of serving their communities.

Overcoming Adversity

The school hasn't been without controversy and adversity. A school employee working in the dormitory was charged with abusing students. The newborn child of one student was found dead. And just the fact that Oprah's name was attached to the institution made many feel that it was something it is not: an elite school.

Some have even accused the girls of being spoiled! Maybe it's because of the on-campus beauty salon...but Oprah's reasoning for including this luxury makes sense: 'These girls deserve to be surrounded by beauty, and beauty does inspire,' she told The Washington Post in January 2007.

Graduation ceremonies are scheduled for January 2012. Of course, Oprah will be in attendance. It's likely she wouldn't miss it for the world.

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