Story highlights

The first class of Oprah Winfrey's South Africa-based academy has graduated

The 71 girls are all accepted in universities in South Africa and the United States

The TV host set up the school in 2007 to give education to girls from poor backgrounds

She plans to continue championing the rights of girls to a better education

CNN —  

Surrounded by the white-clad students of her all-girls academy, Oprah Winfrey is glowing with pride.

And just like many mothers at a graduation ceremony, the talk show queen cannot hold back the tears as the girls she calls her daughters stroll across the stage to accept their diplomas.

“I am one proud mama and for once I think I know what that feels like for real,” Winfrey said before the graduation of the first class of her South Africa-based school last week. “It feels like a real sense of accomplishment. It is a triumph indeed, considering where all these girls have come from.”

The TV star had every reason to be jubilant: In 2007, she had hand-picked all these students as she established the $40 million Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls to provide world-class high school education to underprivileged children from South Africa and teach them leadership skills.

Five years later, the 71 graduates of the class of 2011 – all high-achieving young girls who had experienced poverty and personal trauma such as violence, molestation, or loss of a parent – have all been accepted to continue their studies at universities in South Africa and the United States.

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“When I look at them, I see where they’ve been, I see where they’ve come from. I know how hard it is to come up from nowhere and nothing and have almost no support and to have suffered not one or two but on average five, six traumas by the time you actually get in this school,” said Winfrey.

“And now 100% of this class has been accepted into colleges, 10% going to the United States. I mean, that’s pretty incredible.”

Before the graduation, the girls received intensive financial planning counseling and assistance to help them with life beyond the academy, school officials say. A mentoring program has also been put in place to offer them advice during university.

Overall, the boarding school, which spans 52 acres in the small town of Henley-on-Klip near Johannesburg, accommodates 400 South African girls of any race, color or origin, aged 12 to 18. The students are offered free tuition, uniforms and meals and have access to the academy’s state-of-the-art facilities, which include modern classrooms, computers labs, sport fields and a 10,000-volume library.

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But for all its success and money spent, Winfrey’s academy has not been without its controversies. A few months after opening, the school was rocked by an abuse scandal when one of its matrons was accused of molesting students. The women was acquitted in 2010.

Last year, a student concealed her pregnancy and then secretly gave birth at the school. The baby died and was later found in the student’s school bag.

Winfrey, who lost a child as a teenager and has spoken publicly about abuse she suffered at a young age, said it was her faith in the girls that kept her “steadfast” and “stimulated” amid all the challenges.

“I’ve always believed in the girls,” she said. “I’ve known that no matter what we were going through, the girls were worth it – no matter what happened, the end of the day the girls, the investment in the girls, which is really an investment in the future leadership of this country.”

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The 57-year-old media mogul, who now runs her own channel, appropriately titled OWN, said her next mission is to continue championing the rights of young girls to a better education.

She aims to use the experience garnered over the past five years as a “force for change” to give educational opportunities to more girls from poor backgrounds in other countries and help raise the next generation of female leaders and entrepreneurs.

“You want to change the world, you change a girl’s life,” she said. “What I intend to do now is … take that model and to use it in the world to change the lives of 250 million girls around the world who can’t get an education, who don’t have any asset other than their bodies to use, and therefore they’re sold for dowries, they’re sold off into slavery, they’re married at 11 and 12 years old.”

Winfrey, who overcame economic hardship as well as racial and gender challenges to become one of the world’s most successful and influential women, says education can help girls from all backgrounds to raise their aspirations.

“In the beginning, I think we had teachers who were like, ‘oh, the girls, they come here disadvantaged.’ So we’ve eliminated that word ‘disadvantaged,’ because disadvantaged allows other people to look at you like you have some kind of disease, and they lower their expectations for what you can be.

“I said, ‘nobody has a disadvantaged brain. Nobody is here with a disadvantaged mind. Nobody has a disadvantaged spirit.’ “

For this “proud momma,” the possibilities are endless for her girls.

“You were born in the year that apartheid ended in this country,” Winfrey tells her school’s students. “That means that you are a child of freedom. There is no bar.”