Oprah Winfrey was in South Africa over the weekend to attend the first graduation of 72 students from her Leadership Academy for Girls.

The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa opened in 2007 with 150 low-income seventh-and-eighth graders, the school now enrolls about 300.

Both Oprah and Graca Machel (humanitarian and wife of Nelson Mandela) addressed the girls at the graduation. Mandela inspired Oprah to open the $40 million school in 2007.

“The pride that I feel today is overpowering,” she told the students. "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.

“This class will prove that when you invest in the leadership of girls, you invest in a nation.”

The country’s black majority continues to feel the vestiges of the apartheid era’s systemic discrimination, which ended in 1994. Even with substantial investments in education since then, thousands of schools continue to be unable to provide basic books, desks, supplies and infrastructure to their students. Schools tend to lack electricity and running water.

Many girls in South Africa do not finish high school. While 90 per cent were enrolled in primary schools in 2009, just over 6 per cent did not finish. Averaged over the 2005-2009 period, only about 48 per cent of girls attended primary school on a regular basis, though 74 per cent were enrolled.

The Washington Post broke the story of Bongekile Mncube, a pastor’s daughter who will attend the University of Johannesburg to study politics and economics. She, like her peers, now belongs to the generation of young adults who may bring South Africa out of poverty.

To gain admission to the school, the girls had to be identified as high-caliber students from poor families and difficult pasts. They also had to complete an intense application process.

Oprah herself rose through to the top from a disadvantaged background in Mississippi.

“I know that education is the door to freedom … So I want to do that for girls who come from backgrounds like my own, who have disadvantaged circumstances but no disadvantaged attitudes or brainpower or spirit. I want to give them the chance that I was give,” she said at the ceremony.

The journey has been an important one, but there have been bumps along the way—much like life itself. In 2007, the school was rocked by allegation of child molestation by one of the dormitory matrons, who has since been acquitted. Then, a dead newborn was found in a student’s bag after the mother had hidden her pregnancy and given birth in secret.

Still, only three girls were lost from the program, with 72 of the original 75 admitted girls graduating. Such retention rates beat out the national average. More than half a million schoolchildren who should have graduated last year dropped out. Of the remaining 496,000 who sat exams, only a fourth qualified for university, says the government.

All 72 of the girls will attend university either in South Africa or the United States.

Source: SOS Children's Villages

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