What Is Life Like at Oprah’s Leadership Academy?
“I applaud Oprah or anyone who can financially fund such a project but while reading the article I was asking myself if $40 million was a little extreme for a school with initial enrollment of 152 girls. What could $40 million do for underprivileged children here in the U.S? Or, could more schools have been built that were not quite as grand? ” SLK
The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls opened in 2007, backed by $40 million and the eponymous benefactor’s desire to provide young, promising female students opportunities her own impoverished background never could. Located in Henly-on-Klip, South Africa, the school launched with an initial class of 152, each hailing from economically depressed households, most of them situated in gang-ridden neighborhoods still recovering from apartheid-era marginalization. As one can easily ascertain from its nomenclature, the curriculum circles around molding girls in grades 7 through 12 into strong, creative and compassionate community, business and political innovators and leaders. In order to offer up the most well-rounded education possible, coursework involves the following subjects:
Arts and Culture – Visual arts, dance, theatre and music
Business Sciences – Economics, management, accounting, general business
First Additional Languages – Afrikaans, isiZulu and Sesotho
Information Technology – General information technology and computer applications technology
Life Orientation – Career, personal development, physical education/recreation and social development
Considering Oprah’s Leadership Academy ultimately hopes to mold the next generation of South African political and community organizers, participation in events inside and outside of class time remains an essential cog in their educational machine. Sending their promising young ladies into the world provides them with the first-person look at serious (often institutional) issues necessary to formulate sustainable solutions. Like its main curriculum and exceptional selection of expanded and after-school activities, these field trips, programs, conferences, projects and more cover an impressively wide range of subjects. February 2011, for example, saw 22 students and four teachers take part in a rigorous leadership retreat, with seminars on general communication, ethics, conflict management and other relevant topics.
But the real standout programming here heavily emphasizes very real, long-term problems afflicting their local, national, continental and global communities. The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls frequently partners with other nonprofits in order to nurture education and promote social justice. Among their laudable projects, either solo or in conjunction with different organizations, include the following examples:
- OWLAGive – For six days in 2008, the 228 enrollees at the time devoted their midterm holiday to donate over 3,000 hours towards community service projects. Some of what these extraordinary young women accomplished included planting garden meant to nourish an underprivileged school, visiting breast cancer patients at a local hospice, creating and distributing breast cancer awareness ribbons, cheering up “gogos” in an elder care facility with games, manicures and murals and supplying an isolated orphanage with brand new playground equipment. Among others, of course.
- HIV/AIDS Awareness and prevention – Oprah herself launched her school’s HIV/AIDS education initiative herself, taking a test and encouraging all students to follow suit. Many students at OWLAG originate from families hosting one or more of South Africa’s 5.4 million individuals infected with the AIDS virus, and even those who don’t still understand why awareness is so critical to the nation’s long-term stability, as it probably resonates with someone they know and love. Real leaders, the school believes, know that de-stigmatizing victims and openness mean improved public health over time.
- Habitat for Humanity – Although falling under the OWLAGive umbrella, the school’s partnership with Habitat for Humanity deserves special mention. The popular charity has long enjoyed the media darling’s support, and millions from her Oprah’s Angel Network often find their way into its coffers, making it a perfect fit for what her Academy wants to accomplish. In 2008, the girls did right by their neighbors in substandard housing, devoting several days to building 11 brick houses to replace their previous squalid conditions. And such an undertaking required grueling physical labor, too, as they themselves took part in laying bricks and mixing cement right alongside more seasoned professionals.
- Environmental Consciousness – Participation in the OWLAG Enviro Club and Generation Earth conference inspire many students to aid humanity by studying, designing and promoting green practices. In fact, the latter became one of the first in South Africa to take part in the latter program, forming some valuable networks with others along the way. The former organization launches many of its eco-conscious projects right there on campus, most notably installing recycling bins in every classroom, and future plans involve battery recycling. OWLAG Enviro Club also plans clean-up trips to nearby locations such as the Klip River.
- Cultural Diversity Celebrations – South Africa boasts a rich, diverse ethnic and racial heritage, which the school frequently celebrates through various public and private events. One example popped up from 2010, when OWLAG hosted a Special Assembly celebrating 150 of Indian immigration.
The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls unquestionably holds some incredibly noble intentions, and life there offers up some amazing — if not outright once-in-a-lifetime — educational opportunities for intelligent, driven tween and teen girls who may not otherwise enjoy them. However, the school has buckled under a right fair amount of controversy and scandal as well. The following stories stand as some of the most notable since its 2007 inception:
- Sexual assault – Thirteen separate charges of sexual and physical assault were brought upon dorm matron Tiny Virginia Makopo shortly after OWLAG opened its doors. Oprah herself flew to South Africa in order to address the situation personally, “aggressive” action for which she received much praise, though the perpetrator later ended up free on a $450 bond anyways. Such an alarming tragedy forced the nation to start re-thinking its culture of ignoring rape and sexual assault, both of which run rampant and largely unpunished. But such a major social perspective shift requires generations of education and effort, so until it happens, more young ladies may find themselves at risk.
- Isolation from families – Although the boarding school considers itself “structured, safe” and concerned with “protect[ing] the health, welfare and well-being of the students” above all else, some parents believe they might be a little too overprotective. The girls can only receive four visitors at a time, maximum, which proves problematic for those loving large families. Some reports also include complaints about heavily restrictive cell phone usage. Allegedly, students must switch them off until the weekend rolls around, which many parents understandably feel is potentially dangerous, especially if a personal, local or national tragedy strikes. While OWLAG pats itself on the back for its safety measures, more concerned individuals and families feel their regulations a little too isolationist to be truly healthy and helpful.
- Dead baby – In early 2011, South African authorities detained an OWLAG student with a dead baby in her bag and profuse bleeding in her body. Details remained obscured, though they do suspect she gave birth right there at the school before running off. Whether or not the infant passed due to natural causes or something a little more sinister required investigation as well, though thus far no results have been shared with the press.
At the time of this writing, Oprah Winfrey’s Leadership Academy for Girls has only opened its doors to extraordinary young women from underprivileged circumstances for four years, so whether or not it eventually succeeds in its mission or succumbs to stockpiling scandals still has yet to be determined. For now, though, philanthropists of all types can look towards it for inspiration when working with educational initiatives aimed at creating equal opportunities for impoverished kids. Even if they don’t have the resources, at least some of the spirit and ideas can be adapted to fit different needs!