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Oprah Offers Advice At JCSU Commencement

Every year universities compete to lure a graduation speaker that will put them in the spotlight. This year Rutgers got President Obama. Johns Hopkins got Spike Lee. And who landed Oprah? Not a big-name school, but Charlotte's own Johnson C. Smith University. She gave a much-anticipated send off to about 300 students on Sunday.

When Shana Smith heard Oprah Winfrey was going to be speaking at graduation, she spread the news. 

"I texted everybody. I emailed. I made phone calls, 'Oprah's going to be at graduation!'"

Smith came to graduation, not only eager to walk across the stage, but to hear from a woman who had a tough start to life, worked hard, and became a media mogul. 

Credit Lisa Worf / WFAE
Family and friends of graduates turn to look as the graduates led by Oprah enter.

A lot of other people were excited. As Oprah stepped to the podium, cheers went up, phones shot in the air, and people clicked away. 

"It's been a long time coming," said Oprah.   

She explained what brought her to the small historically black university. It wasn't a big check or an honorary degree, but to see two women whom she calls her "daughter-girls" graduate. They're part of the first two classes to complete Oprah's leadership academy for talented girls with few means in South Africa.

She Facetimes with them a lot and learned all about JCSU through them. 

"I feel like I have been in Mosaic Village. I love this campus. I love everything this campus represents in wanting young men and women to win," she said.      

And then she told the crowd how she won. 

"I had been led by that little voice my entire life. If I had any real wisdom to share with you, it is: let that voice lead you." 

Call it intuition, the voice of god, your higher self, she said, it's the thing that allows you to make the right decision even when other people are wrong. It allows you to do the right thing when nobody else is watching. And she said she recognized she didn't do it alone. 

"I was reciting Sojourner Truth 'Ain't I a Woman.' I was reading about Benjamin Banneker. I knew every Langston Hughes poem. I understood the root that created the branch that allowed me to blossom. You can't do it unless you know who you are and whose you are," said Oprah.

She ended with a line borrowed from her friend Quincy Jones.  

"Your future is so bright, JCSU, it burns my eyes.  Go with God," she said to applause.

Smith found her words encouraging. She made it through college working full-time and taking care of a child. 

"The fact that she listened to that voice that told her that she was going to be more than her circumstances and that she continues to listen to that and came so far, that is definitely an inspiration," said Smith.

Stedmon Lemon relished his walk across the stage. (Oprah's partner has the same first name.)  

"When they said it, I kind of gave her the eye contact. She pointed at me. A billion dollar point," Lemon laughed.

Credit Lisa Worf / WFAE
Antoinette Thornton Browns poses for pictures with her husband as she celebrates earning her degree.

Antoinette Thornton Brown is a big Oprah fan. But on this day, she had one thing on her mind. After many years of dreaming of a degree, she's finally earned one.       

"I'm very happy. I'm so elated. This has been a long time coming for me.  I'm just really excited.  I'm so grateful and thankful to God," said Thornton Brown smiling and wiping away tears.    

Not even Oprah could sweeten that feeling.