Winfrey with Current Leadership Academy Students in South Africa

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In all the world there is perhaps no more recognizable champion for the underdog than Oprah Winfrey. She has made a career out of being an understanding, sympathetic listener. On her talk show, guests told their stories, no matter how harrowing or difficult. Something about Winfrey makes people feel comfortable. It’s easy to relate to her because of her own public struggles and failings. It’s easy to admire her because she is a humanitarian dedicated to philanthropy and making the world a better place.

Just like with any celebrity, it is easy to be critical. But someone with Oprah’s huge following, her pulpit on television, her magazine empire, her household name—someone like that could do anything. She could sail around the world collecting pearls or sleep all day long on a mattress of machine-generated clouds. Instead, she chooses to use her powers for good.

The Opening Day of Oprah Winfrey's New School in Johannesberg

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Oprah didn’t get where she is overnight. Part of what makes her so appealing are her humble beginnings. She was born to a teenage mother in Mississippi, and was raised in inner city Milwaukee. Her family was poor. She found success by doing what she does best: talking honestly with people. Perhaps it was her difficult childhood that inspired her to establish her recent humanitarian project in South Africa: The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls.

The Front of The Leadership Academy, Buildings and Grounds

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The school is selective,  only admitting applicants that demonstrate a deep commitment to bettering themselves and their communities. It’s interesting to think about Oprah’s academy as it relates to other educational efforts in the region. While most NGOs or other aid organizations focus simply on creating educational opportunities for the most people in the most places, Oprah’s school brings something very different. It’s controversial to some when so many in the region are so poor. Opponents site the extra large closets in dormitory rooms, built to accommodate the new clothes and shoes students will be able to afford with their work-study money. But Winfrey believes having money is important for learning how to manage it. To many there is no controversy. Winfrey’s school offers real opportunity and hope, something other aid organizations struggle to provide.

Oprah Winfrey Standing with a Young Girl in a Classroom Reading

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For the girls at Leadership Academy, the school provides the kind of education typically reserved for the very wealthy. Only someone with Oprah’s resources could create this type of environment for people who can’t afford to pay, in a part of the world where private-school-style privilege seems like a myth. For the rest of the female children in the region, Leadership Academy provides something to aspire to—an attainable dream that could change their lives in unimaginable ways. For the aid workers and volunteers teaching at neighboring schools, perhaps the motivation Leadership Academy sparks will help to inspire students to greatness. At the very least it illustrates the value of education—the doors it can open and the vast world of opportunity just beyond its walls.

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