When Oprah Winfrey was 3 years old, her grandmother taught her to read. When Winfrey walked into a radio station at age 16, she had never thought about becoming a broadcaster. But she was sure of one thing — she loved to read.
She had just won a beauty pageant and was at the station to pick up her prize when a man in the station’s newsroom said, “Hey, kid, do you want to hear your voice on tape?” He handed her a news article, and she took the microphone with confidence.
“I read like a champion,” Winfrey recalls. “Yes, because one thing I know I can do, ‘You want me to read something? I will read for you, sir.’”
After she read the news, right then, the station hired her. From there, the poor girl raised on a Mississippi farm won a college scholarship, worked television news jobs, landed her own talk show and became one of the richest and most influential celebrities in the world.
Reading changed the trajectory of Winfrey’s life, and she has never forgotten it. As her success grew, so did her philanthropic work to promote education, which she calls the “open door to anybody’s future.”
Winfrey long had thought of making the leap from writing checks for scholarships and literacy programs to creating her own school for disadvantaged girls. But she had never focused on that dream; it was something to do some day. Then, in December 2000, she met with former South African President Nelson Mandela and casually mentioned the idea. He jumped off the sofa and phoned the minister of education, Kader Asmal.
“I had just been thinking about it, you know, ‘It’d be nice to have a school one day.’ I wasn’t planning on doing it right then,” Winfrey told America.gov, smiling at the memory. “The next thing I know, Kader Asmal, who is on vacation, he’s being pulled off his boat someplace, and he is meeting me in Cape Town that evening to have a discussion about building a school.”
Seven years later, the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy opened in Henley-on-Klip, a town south of Johannesburg, South Africa. The first class of 152 students represented every province in the country. Today, the academy is close to reaching capacity — about 450 girls in grades 7 through 12.
After the initial push from Mandela, the academy developed independently from the government. Winfrey’s foundation funds the boarding school, and she serves as its president. From the beginning, she has overseen even the smallest details, down to the pleats in the uniform skirts. She met and interviewed each of the 484 finalists for the first class. One girl described herself, apologetically, as a poor girl. Winfrey said that she herself had been a poor girl too.
Winfrey, born to an unwed teenage mother, spent the first few years of her life in a home without running water or electricity. But her grandmother, Hattie Mae Lee, established such a strong educational foundation by teaching her to read the Bible that Winfrey skipped kindergarten, and later, second grade. When she was a teenager, a teacher noticed her constantly reading in the cafeteria and had her transferred to a better school.
Through a life of poverty and hardships, including sexual abuse, Winfrey held on to her love of reading. “My validation came from school,” Winfrey said. “My only sense of worth and value came from school. So I couldn’t wait to get to school.”
Back to school
At the academy, students call Winfrey “Mama Oprah.” She says they are the children she never had, and she visits four times a year, staying from a week to up to a month. Her last visit was in November 2009, just before she flew to Washington to tape a Christmas television special featuring President Obama.
When visiting, Winfrey is there for the students — she attends class and hangs out in the dorm (eating pizza in pajamas or dancing). She also gives them a “Mama Bear talk” about sex and the importance of education. The girls usually giggle nervously. It’s the only time most of them have heard such frank talk. “I never leave without a big conversation about boys and maintaining, holding onto yourself even around boys,” Winfrey said.
Winfrey hasn’t had to instill in the students a love for books: they already love reading. She looks for terrific readers among applicants. Reading “gives you enormous confidence, and you don’t even know what it’s doing,” she said. “It’s improving your vocabulary, it’s expanding your view of the world, it’s introducing you to people you wouldn’t know. It’s all of that.” The academy’s library, with its thousands of books, is popular. But Winfrey has also wanted to start a personal library for each student; many students have had few items to call their own. Every Christmas, she gives them books.
One year, Winfrey gave I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a memoir that traces U.S. poet Maya Angelou’s life as a poor black girl in the rural South. Winfrey read and reread the book as a teenager and says that it affirmed her own life. This year, the gift was the Twilight series of vampire romance novels by Stephenie Meyer — they were always checked out at the school’s library.
The academy takes Winfrey back to what it is like to be a teenager. She remembers the intense need at that age to feel validated. On her visits, she feels pulled in hundreds of directions and doesn’t have time to meet with each girl. But she hopes her interactions send this message: “I see who you are. I see what you are trying to do. I see your hopes. I see your dreams, your desires. I see your worth. I see you.”