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Oprah Winfrey cried Saturday when she announced the inaugural Class of 2011 at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. The talk show queen and media mogul gave a touching speech to the class at the institute in Henley-on-Klip South Africa.
Her 72 graduating students are all headed to universities across South Africa and the united States, undergoing courses in various subjects including medicine, law, engineering and economics.
Mashadi Kekana said: “Mom Oprah, thank you for showing us that we’re not just girls, but girls with greater purpose in this world.”
Founded in 2007 with $40 million from Oprah, the school has faced criticism for focusing on a select few in a country that struggles to meet basic education needs.
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.
The $40 million school is located about an hour outside of Johannesburg in the small town of Henley-on-Klip. It hasn’t been an easy ride since its opening. In 2010, the academy has faced 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.
Oprah also had to settle a lawsuit filed by the school’s former headmistress, Nomvuyo Mzamane, who claimed Oprah defamed her in remarks made regarding the scandal.
Despite difficulties, Oprah’s work for the school has been praised, particularly her efforts to encourage the students in humanitarian ways.
The girls have lectured in their communities about AIDS and run breast cancer awareness campaigns in a bid to give back to those in need.
Winfrey says the graduates 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.”