Call it the school of talk.
Oprah Winfrey opened the doors to her self-funded South African school for disadvantaged girls Tuesday, six years and $40 million after first announcing the venture.
The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, located in the town of Henley-on-Klip just south of Johannesburg, has long been a pet project of the talk show host, who pledged to make the newly opened center "the best school in the world."
"I wanted to give this opportunity to girls who had a light so bright that not even poverty could dim that light," Winfrey said, adding that by educating the next generation of South African girls, she hoped to "change the face of a nation."
Former South African president Nelson Mandela was present at the ceremony, as were Tina Turner, Mary J. Blige, Mariah Carey, Sidney Poitier, Chris Tucker and Spike Lee, all of whom were asked to bring a personally inscribed book for the school's library.
"It is my hope that this school will become the dream of every South African girl, and they will study hard and qualify for the school one day," Mandela said.
As it is, only 152 girls, aged 11 and 12, were selected for the inaugural class at the Academy, out of 3,500 national applicants. Requirements for acceptance include having a household income of no more than $787 per month and undertaking a personal interview with headmaster Winfrey. The 28-building campus includes state-of-the-art computer and science labs, a theater, a wellness center, a yoga center, a beauty salon and, last but not least, classrooms.
At the ribbon cutting, the talk show host spoke out about the importance of an education, particularly for impoverished girls, calling her own learning process "the most vital aspect of my life."
"I was a poor girl who grew up with my grandmother, like so many of these girls, with no water and electricity," she said. "I love these girls with every part of my being. I didn't know you could feel this way about other people's children."
Winfrey first hatched the idea for the Academy in 2000, after meeting with Mandela.
In a mission statement in January's O magazine, Winfrey, who personally selected not only the students but the uniforms and bathroom tiles as well, claims she initially pledged just $10 million to the school, but after meeting with the nation's minister of education, began thinking on a larger scale.
"This is the best investment I have ever made, building a future for girls who more than deserve it," she wrote. "These are the daughters I've been coming to my whole life."
Winfrey has said she opted to build the school in Africa rather than in a U.S. inner city out of respect for the anti-apartheid leader and because she felt the need was greater abroad.
"Say what you will about the American education system—it does work," she told Newsweek. "If you are a child in the United States, you can get an education.
"I became so frustrated with visiting inner-city schools that I just stopped going. The sense that you need to learn just isn't there. If you ask the kids what they want or need, they will say an iPod or some sneakers. In South Africa, they don't ask for money or toys. They ask for uniforms so they can go to school."
During the opening ceremony, Winfrey also said that plans were already in the works for a second African school, this one for both boys and girls, in the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal.