24 June 2011
Over 4 000 people gathered at South Africa’s University of the Free State on Friday to witness the awarding of an honorary doctorate in education to Oprah Winfrey.
A palpable air of excitement punctuated the cold air in Bloemfontein as the university laid out the red carpet to honour one of the world’s supreme daughters.
Despite calls for the observation of academic solemnity, nothing could stop the crowd from screaming and cheering their loudest as Miss Winfrey made her way towards the podium, accompanied by a procession of academics from the university.
Dignitaries present at the ceremony included Free State Premier Ace Magashule and the mayor, while reonowned South African singer Sibongile Khumalo performed for a captivated audience.
From humble beginnings in rural Mississippi to world record books as the undisputed queen of TV talk-shows, Winfrey looked proud and emotional in accepting the honour.
Winfrey has honorary doctorates from Duke University and Princeton, among others. UFS says this particular degree is to recognize the immeasurable contribution she has made to the world.
“Miss Winfrey had the world to choose from, but she chose our South Africa,” Vice-Chancellor Jansen said of the work Winfrey has done in the country.
Winfrey attended Lincoln High School, but after her early success in the Upward Bound programme was transferred to the affluent suburban Nicolet High School, where she says her poverty was constantly rubbed in her face as she rode the bus to school with fellow African-Americans, some of whom were servants of her classmates’ families.
Encouraged by her father, Winfrey made education her priority. She became an honours student, and was voted Most Popular Girl. She joined her high school speech team at East Nashville High School, placing second in the nation in dramatic interpretation.
She won an oratory contest, which secured her a full scholarship to Tennessee State University, a historically black institution, where she studied communication.
Her first job as a teenager was working at a local grocery store. At age 17, Winfrey won the Miss Black Tennessee beauty pageant. She also attracted the attention of the local black radio station, WVOL, which hired her to do the news part-time. She worked there during her senior year of high school, and again while in her first two years of college.
Winfrey then went on to make television history with her daily talk show.