Oprah's Academy for Girls to Hold Its First Graduation

PHOTO: Oprah Winfrey celebrates with the first graduating class of The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa.PlayBenny Gool for Harpo, Inc.
WATCH Oprah Winfrey's First Graduating Class

Oprah Winfrey is set to graduate the first class of her Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls on Saturday, a 10-year journey that has been filled with tears, trials and triumph, she told ABC News' Diane Sawyer.

"I've learned so much. ... I would do it differently but the fact that we are here is a triumph," Winfrey said in a wide-ranging interview that touched on her own future in TV.

"This has been a journey of 8,000 miles," she said this morning. "Tomorrow, for me, is about celebrating the journey this has been."

Watch "World News" tonight at 6:30 ET to see Diane Sawyer's interview with Oprah Winfrey.

In January 2007, the talk show host opened the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls on 52 acres in the small town of Henley-on-Klip, south of Johannesburg, South Africa. It took $40 million and six years to build.

At the time, Winfrey called the school -- a promise to herself and to former South African President Nelson Mandela -- "the fulfullment of my work on Earth."

Of the nearly 3,000 applicants, 152 of the country's brightest young girls were selected to attend the boarding school. 72 students will be graduating on Saturday and the school currently has around 400 students.

Winfrey said today that despite their traumatic backgrounds -- pocked with poverty, AIDS, rape, disease and death -- the students pushed forward and succeeded. All of them are headed to college, with 10 percent bound for a U.S. university.

"I've just never seen a more resilient or brilliant group of girls," she said. "I mean they have a heart of brilliance. They're just so open and gracious. ... I'm such a proud mother. They have taken this moment, this opportunity, and seized it in a way that I could only dream of."

"I will be celebrating that [at Saturday's graduation]," Winfrey said. "I will be trying to take that all in and looking into the eyes of their parents who will for sure know that this poverty cycle, that the cycle of poverty, has been broken with their daughters."

'I Promise I'll Make You Proud'

Winfrey, whom the young women affectionately call "Mom Oprah," said that one young woman named Bushadi was attending Wellesley in Massachusetts. Winfrey said that Bushadi, who still sleeps with her mother in a tin shack when she returns home, had written about her township in her college essay.

"Bushadi is the one girl who in the interview [five years ago] stopped the interview and said. ... 'I would just like to say that if you allow me to come to this school, I promise I'll make you proud," she said. "She has. I mean every single moment. Not a moment let down."

She said she has few concerns about the young women as they started a new chapter in their lives.

"My biggest worry is their biggest worry. … Many of them will say they're worried about actually discipling themselves. They're worried about not having the structure and the support. … My biggest worry is that maybe we gave them too much support and not allowed them to be able to actually function in the world."

"My biggest worry is that they are so proud that they will be afraid of being perceived as not being smart enough and therefore will not ask questions. … That they won't ask for what they need."

Winfrey, who after 25 years ended "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in May 2011, also touched on her struggling cable network OWN and her new weekly primetime show, "Oprah's Next Chapter."

She said that building the network was like "trying to turn a ship around in the middle of a, you know, small canal" and acknowledged that if she could start over, she'd make some adjustments.

"If I had to that all over again, I would not make the mistake of making the big announcement," she said. "I would try to quietly build one night at a time."

"Is it a challenge? Yes, but it's also I think an incredible opportunity to be able to maintain a connection with the audience and create what I consider to be programming that is mindful and not meaningless to you," Winfrey added.

School Faces Some Challenges

Winfrey's school has presented her with its own challenges as well.

In November 2007, allegations of sexual and physical abuse by a school matron arose. The school matron was dismissed and then charged with molesting several girls. Winfrey flew to South Africa, apologizing to the students and parents and praising the girls who'd come forward to report the abuse. The matron was acquitted in October 2010.

The school went on to flourish despite the early setbacks, becoming an even stronger learning institution as they grew over the years.

Today Winfrey shared some of the lessons she'd learned since opening the school, including the importance of patience.

"What I learned in this process is that you do nothing alone and that you can have a lot of big ideas and a lot of big dreams and vision, but unless you have the infrastructure and the people, the team of people, to work with you, nothing ever gets done," Winfrey said. "But through every single difficulty I have said to myself the investment is in leadership. It's in the leadership of these girls."

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