“My girls,” Oprah calls them—her students at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, in South Africa. Nonkululeko (Morgan) Mpungose ’17 is one of Oprah’s original girls. At the age of 12, she was handpicked by the media mogul herself to be among the first 152 students of the school, which opened in 2007 with the mission of educating academically gifted girls from impoverished backgrounds.

Ten years later, Mpungose calls Winfrey “Mom O” and considers her a mentor. They spend Thanksgiving together, along with other Leadership Academy alumnae attending U.S. colleges and universities, and Mpungose phones Winfrey for advice about everything from her course of studies—she’s an architecture-and-urbanism major—to what to wear to special events.

As for the biggest special event of all—her Smith graduation on May 21—might Mpungose have been a factor in Winfrey’s decision to deliver this year’s Commencement address? Mum’s the word, Mpungose says. “I can’t confirm that nor deny it.”

“I was born in Durban, South Africa, in 1994, the year that marked the end of apartheid. This meant I was the first in my family to be born into a free country. My mother gave me the name Nonkululeko, meaning “mother of freedom.” This was a symbol of my mother’s hope that I was going to be different, that I was going to walk a different path in life.

Apartheid was designed to oppress people of color in South Africa, so even when it ended, it left our families with little to live on. This was catastrophic for girls’ education. In households where families are dealing with disease, loss and poverty, oftentimes education isn’t a priority, especially for girls.

My mother was a domestic worker at the time, and I imagined I would grow up to do the same work. College was not within the realm of my imagination. My mother sold almost everything we had to put my brother and me in school, and we were on the verge of throwing in the towel when I was selected to be in the first class at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls.

For a girl like me, this was an opportunity of a lifetime. My world expanded so much. Suddenly, I had bigger and better dreams for myself. For the first time, I was seeing myself through my mother’s eyes: a girl who, with opportunity, had the potential to transform herself and her community.

I first learned of Smith at the academy, when Assistant Director of Admission Meredith McDill delivered an amazing presentation on the college’s advocacy for women’s education. I was sold! Smith recognizes that making a difference in the world can be done through gathering women from all over, educating them and then sending them back to uplift their communities. That resonated with a deeper part of me.

Today, I get to sit in a classroom with women from all over. I get to engage in in-depth conversations with them, absorbing as much of their energy as possible in the hope that one day my cup will be full and I’ll be able to return to South Africa and uplift my community.

I’m studying to become an architect. My plan is to go to grad school at the University of Southern California and get my architecture license before I return home. I’m really passionate about low-income housing. I’m going to work with low-income communities in South Africa to create homes that provide for their needs.”


A version of this article also appeared in The Gate.

SAQ, Summer 2017