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Oprah To Speak At JCSU Commencement, Three Students Graduated From Her School In South Africa

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Oprah Winfrey is speaking this Sunday at Johnson C. Smith University’s commencement. The media mogul has a personal connection to three young women at the Charlotte school. They’re graduates of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, the school she opened in South Africa in 2007. 

Mpumi Nobiva and Andronica Klaas were part of the first two classes at Oprah’s leadership academy. And they immediately fit in.

"We represent families that have been affected by the socioeconomic status of our nations, families that have been affected by the politics of South Africa. And so, I, for one, was raised by my grandmother—I lost a mother at a young age. But that’s the narrative of pretty much most the girls at the Oprah school; even if you have both parents, there’s the reality of poverty or the reality of unemployment, or just facing society and trying to make the best of really tough circumstances," Mpumi says.

Mpumi is graduating from JCSU this year with a degree in interdisciplinary studies. Andronica is a junior majoring in computer science. They’re both from poor areas outside of Johannesburg, South Africa. They’re two of 150 girls out of 6,000 who applied to be in the first two classes at the Academy. They call themselves sisters, and they call Oprah "Mama O."

"She’s a mother. We call her consultant-mom, because she won’t impose her opinions or her advice on you. She has a smart and wise way of giving us advice: she’ll hint at it and then just walk away and let you pick up the hint, but if she needs to hammer it in, she’ll hammer it in. But she’s very involved," Andronica explains.

Oprah teaches a class for seniors at the Academy called "Life 101," something she’s described as covering all the stuff about the world she wished someone had taught her.

When it came time to look at colleges, Nobiva says the American liberal arts model appealed to her, because she wasn’t sure what she wanted to study in college, or tertiary as it’s called at home.

"In South Africa, the education system is such that, when you go into tertiary, you have to have a pretty solid idea of what you want to do, you’ve gotta carry it through," Mpumi explains. "If you change your mind, you have to start from scratch. For me, that sounded absurd, because I wanted to try so many things."

She says that freedom was a big part of the reason she came to the U.S. and to JCSU. She ended up changing her major four times, finally settling on interdisciplinary studies, sort of a "design your own major" program. Her senior thesis studies the power of personal narrative for oppressed African women.

Both girls got college scholarships, and a foundation Oprah started for graduates of the Academy helps supplement their expenses.

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Credit Johnson C. Smith University
Andronica Klaas

Andronica says every time she goes home, she’s reminded of how fortunate she is. She tells the story of a girl who she used to compete with in primary school for the top spot academically.

"She kept me on my toes, and I kept her on her toes. But unfortunately, right after primary school, I think in the 9th grade, she fell pregnant, and she had to get married," she says. "And that was basically her only way of living. It just so happened to be with an older guy. The situation was that she couldn’t afford to pay for high school, so she got a sugar daddy. But as a result of that, she basically gave up her future trying to preserve her future."

Mpumi says when she sees Oprah on graduation day, she will thank her for showing her how to embrace her life story rather than run from it.

"She’s allowed me to step more into the courage of being myself and my truth about where I come from, the circumstances I was raised under. The story that I would  traditionally be taught to hush about---losing a parent to AIDS, being an orphan---is a story that affords me my place in the world," she says.

Mpumi has earned another scholarship for grad school; she’ll be studying marketing at High Point University in the fall. Andronica has an internship with Bank of America this summer, and she wants to work in corporate IT or business analysis when she graduates in 2017. Both women want to stay and work in the U.S. when they complete their education, but they say they want to find ways to give back to country where they grew up. 

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