First students graduate from Winfrey's South African school


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The Independent Online

Oprah Winfrey said the first students to graduate from her academy for underprivileged South African girls were "free to soar", during a graduation speech yesterday. Winfrey, one of the world's wealthiest women, spent $40m (£26m) to build the school.

When the school opened five years ago, 11- and 12-year-old girls arrived who had never used a computer before and had gone to primary schools that lacked enough desks and chairs for all the students. Many were raised by grandmothers or older siblings after losing parents to Aids, cancer or crime.

Yesterday, they were young women dressed elegantly in white on stage with Winfrey, heading to university to study medicine, law, engineering and economics. Seventy-two of the 75 original members graduated at yesterday's ceremony. All are going to universities in South Africa or the United States.

Winfrey said the school's success was down to teachers who came early and stayed late, to social workers, such as one who travelled hundreds of miles to rescue a student who had encountered violence during a visit home, and to families who instilled discipline in the children despite difficult home lives.

She said there were times when she was discouraged by problems encountered at the school. Soon after it opened, a dormitory matron was accused of abusing students. She was acquitted in 2010. Winfrey, who has spoken of being abused as a child, called the allegations against the matron "crushing". Then last year, a baby born to a student at the school was found dead.

Throughout the crises, Winfrey told reporters on Saturday, "I always held the vision that this day was possible."

She said that her girls would continue to be able to rely on her support. A counselling unit had been set up to help all the graduates at university.