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Susan Scholar carries life lessons from Oprah Winfrey

Orphaned at a young age, Nosipho Shangase found mentors and teachers at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, and she brings with her to Elon University this fall the leadership skills she developed at one of South Africa’s top schools.

Elon University freshman Nosipho Shangase

Higher education isn’t something on the minds of many children in South Africa, even for those who love the sciences and demonstrate strong leadership potential. Not when their parents have died and they move frequently between the homes of relatives.

But for those whose lives lead to the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, college - and college in the United States - isn’t a dream. It’s a reality for young women with a drive to help their communities, including one such incoming student in Elon University’s Class of 2017.

Nosipho Shangase, a recipient of the university's Susan Scholarship, as well as an International Fellow and recipient of an Elon Engagement Scholarship, is among the 1,460 freshmen new to campus this week and begins her collegiate studies with one very powerful advocate in her corner: Oprah Winfrey.

“She’s become a mother to all of the girls currently studying in the States,” Shangase said of the media mogul whose entertainment empire is rivaled only by the size of her heart in helping others. “She’s not just a sponsor but is someone who invests her time in our lives and education. She took the time to groom us into wonderful leaders. Because of her I’m not afraid to be far from home because she's a phone call away.”

Shangase’s journey from South Africa to the United States has been filled with tragedies and triumphs.

Because her parents never married, Shangase spent her early years with maternal relatives. When she fell ill, she ended up moving in with her paternal grandparents. By 2002, her paternal grandmother, grandfather, mother and father had died, and she bounced between aunts and uncles on her paternal side of the family until applying to the academy.

First opened in 2007, the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls educates 380 young women in the seventh through 12th grades. Located south of Johannesburg, the academy selects talented students “who have demonstrated academic talent and leadership potential” for developing the “intellectual and social skills necessary to assume positions of leadership in South Africa and abroad.”

Shangase credited the academy for her transformation into a scholar and leader.

“Today I can take care of myself, being far away from home knowing I’ll only see my family every few months,” she said. “Being at the Leadership Academy taught me to be a resilient person, to take care of myself, study when I need to study. We had so many opportunities to grow as leaders and to shine. It was the best decision I made in my life.”

A college counselor first mentioned Elon University and the possibility of studying in the United States. Shangase knows she wants to pursue a career in the sciences, but she says that in South Africa, students must immediately declare a major, which she was not ready to do. She is, however, ready to help people through various service opportunities. Elon was a perfect fit.

She now begins her education as one of the first students to live in the university’s new Global Neighborhood where she takes part in the international living-learning community.

“I wanted a small, intimate environment where my educational needs as well as my leadership needs are met,” she said. “I’m looking forward to maturing as a leader, as someone involved in community service and helping people as much as I can. I’m looking forward to focusing on my studies and meeting new people.”

Of course, Shangase’s mentor stands ready with encouragement and advice at a moment’s notice. Recent graduates of the leadership academy spent time in California in January-June growing acclimated to American culture under the mentorship of Oprah Winfrey herself.

What’s the most impressive quality about Winfrey? Shangase will tell you it’s her ability to love everyone. “She doesn’t try to change a person,” she said. “She accepts you for who you are and will try to help you find yourself and know yourself better.”

Eric Townsend,
8/26/2013 12:05 PM