Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls

A couple of days ago the South Africa Study Abroad Class of 2013 was privileged to visit the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls (OWLAG) just outside of Johannesburg. Winfrey visited South Africa in 2000 and her experience was so profound that she pledged to build a school for girls. Seven years later, the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls was opened with 7th and 8th grade classes. Each year, a class was added until 2011 when grades seven through twelve were complete. Ms. Winfrey personally donated $40 million to the building of the school. Students attend the school for free, and these costs include education, room and board, uniforms, extracurricular activities and more. However, admission to attend such a school is strict. In order to be considered by the school, the family’s income must be less than 8,000 rand a month. Applications go out to students all over South Africa, specifically in township areas. From there, girls who apply go through both academic testing and interviews to determine potential leadership and resilience. This process weeds out most of the 10,000 girls who apply each year to the 60 that will be lucky enough to become students.

For our visit, girls in Grade 12 (seniors in high school) were matched with Elon students. We spent the day together having lunch, attending classes, getting a tour of the school, and most importantly, forming relationships with each other. My student was Mapaseka, a young woman from Soweto who hopes to go to a university in South Africa and eventually study in the United States. We first went to lunch, where I joined Mapaseka’s friends, five other grade 12 students. We discussed their dreams for the future, which ranged from international business to fashion design. While these young women are only 17 and 18, they already need to be planning their careers, because in South African universities, students must enter with a major already decided. They were very interested in my liberal arts education at Elon and how I had the ability to choose my major halfway through my college experience. We had an discussion about the benefits of a liberal arts education, but eventually we ended up having a conversation about more personal issues, such as the challenges of attending boarding school away from their family and without boys. However, it was clear through our conversation that these girls have truly benefitted from their education at OWLAG. While they were normal teenage girls, they were also much more mature than most young women their age.

After lunch I followed Mapaseka to class. Her history class was studying the fall of apartheid. Sitting in class with these girls who were probably born around 1994, the year that Nelson Mandela became president, was a powerful experience. They are the first generation to live with a government free of apartheid. While they are still affected by the aftermath, it made me hopeful to be surrounded by the children who grew up under Mandela and know more freedom and hope than those who came before them.

Following class, we received a tour of the school. I saw Mapaseka’s dorm room, (which I thought looked similar to our Colonnades dorms at Elon) the gym, pool, music rooms, dance rooms and auditorium. All of these amenities are beautiful, from the murals painted outside of the buildings to even the bathrooms inside. We also saw Oprah’s house on the campus, which the girls tell us she visits as frequently as she can, which is usually a few times a year.

The day before visiting Oprah’s school, we performed service at a school in the township of Alexandra. This was a wonderful experience as well, but the differences between the two schools were more than obvious. The roar of students’ voices was constant throughout the day in Alexandra, whereas at OWLAG, there was a 17:1 student teacher ratio in both of the classes I sat in on. I saw parallels to my own education at OWLAG, but these girls have even more technology that was not available at my high school, including laptops and smart boards.

I was extremely impressed by the school and the huge impact that Ms. Winfrey has made on these young women. Personally this was a very powerful experience because the other students and I were able to connect so easily to these girls as they are our peers.  Mapaseka and I discussed South Africa’s president Jacob Zulu (she was not a huge fan) and President Obama (Mapaseka claimed that South Africa holds “spiritual elections” whenever the United States votes.) We talked about how her parents bring her food when she gets sick of campus food, how often she gets to visit her family, and how girls can be mean in high school. Despite the fact that she grew up in Soweto and I grew up in an Iowa suburb, we found numerous similarities in our lives and connected easily. It is difficult to think about how different Mapaseka’s life would have been had it not been for OWLAG. Our class was fortunate to experience this school and the huge impact it can have on children’s lives.

Few of us have the means to make the kind of impact Ms. Winfrey has made in South Africa, but as our trip has come to an end, what kind of difference can we make either at home or in South Africa to improve our communities?

 #Visited Oprah’s amazing school and met even more amazing young women!

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