Oprah Winfrey said the first students to graduate from her academy for underprivileged South African girls were “free to soar,” during a graduation speech Saturday.
Winfrey also praised the teachers, administrators, social workers, psychologists and family members she said had ensured the students succeeded. Since the school opened five years ago, Winfrey said she has learned it takes a team to support students, especially those who have experienced the poverty and personal trauma that define so many South African lives.
Winfrey said she sees the students as her daughters, and listed the blows they have experienced: “Divorce. Violence. Molestation. The loss of one parent. The loss of another parent. Sorrow. Sadness. Grief.”
The first class to graduate from the school overcame adversity to see 72 of the 75 original members graduate. All 72 are headed to universities in South Africa and the United States. Across South Africa, more than half a million members of the class of 2011 disappeared before the 496,000 remaining took their final exams, and only a quarter of those who graduated did well enough to qualify for university study, according to government figures.
“I'm one proud momma today,” Winfrey said Saturday.
Winfrey, among the wealthiest women in the world, spent $40 million to build the school, giving it facilities many South African universities might envy. But she said the school's success was owed to teachers who came early and stayed late, social workers like one who traveled hundreds of miles (kilometers) to rescue a student who had encountered violence during a visit home, parents who instilled discipline despite difficult home lives.
Winfrey asked staff and family members to stand for applause during the ceremony.
Winfrey told reporters after the ceremony that her girls would continue to be able to rely on her support. A counseling unit had been set up to help all the graduates budget time, money and priorities while in university.
Winfrey said there were times when she was discouraged by problems encountered during the school's early years.
Soon after the school opened, a woman working as a dormitory matron was accused of abusing students. She was acquitted in 2010. Winfrey, who has spoken of being abused as a child and called the allegations against the matron crushing, and has said the trial's outcome was “profoundly” disappointing.
Winfrey settled a defamation lawsuit filed in Philadelphia by the school's former headmistress, Nomvuyo Mzamane, who claimed Winfrey defamed her in remarks made in the wake of the scandal.
Last year, a baby born to a student at the school was found dead.
Throughout the crises, Winfrey told reporters Saturday, “I always held the vision that this day was possible.”
Five years ago, 11- and 12-year-old girls arrived who had never used a computer before, had gone to primary schools that lacked enough desks and chairs for all the students, had been raised by grandmothers or older siblings after losing parents to AIDS, cancer or crime.
Saturday, they were young women dressed elegantly in white on stage with Winfrey, headed to university to study medicine, law, engineering and economics.
Winfrey notes the gradates were born in 1994, the year apartheid ended, “into a nation that said: You are free. You are free to rise. You are free to soar.”