When Oberlin College graduate Thobeka Mnisi received her diploma, Oprah Winfrey stepped out of the audience to give her a congratulatory hug.
Mnisi attended the Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa, a college preparatory boarding school for girls grades eight to 12.
Inspired by her own disadvantaged childhood, Winfrey founded the program in 2002, born out of a discussion she had with South African president Nelson Mandela in 2000. The academy’s inaugural class of 72 girls graduated in 2012.
Winfrey wanted to help provide educational and leadership opportunities for academically gifted girls from impoverished backgrounds who exhibit leadership qualities for making a difference in the world, according to the academy’s website.
She wanted to help girls who grew up like her, “economically disadvantaged, but not poor in mind or spirit.”
In tears of happiness and relief, Mnisi told us how she believes education is a key pathway out of poverty.
“Oh my god!” she gasped. “I’ve been so overwhelmed since the beginning of yesterday and I’ve been crying like an idiot all the time. I didn’t expect this to mean as much as it did. It feels like such a blessing and like a fulfillment of so many dreams for me to have walked across that stage.”
When she began tutoring fifth- and sixth-graders in her hometown of Nelspruit, South Africa, Mnisi grew passionate about access to education and economic opportunity for all youth worldwide, according to a statement from the college.
While in Oberlin, she tutored local high school students as part of a college access program and served on Oberlin’s Interfaith Student Council and student senate.
During her sophomore year, Mnisi was selected as a college research fellow. She spent two summers researching the challenges facing South Africa’s education system, and then interned as a policy analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation in Washington, D.C.
She was awarded the 2018 Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, a one-year grant for a purposeful, independent exploration outside the United States.
This year, she will travel throughout Brazil, Ghana, Indonesia, Mozambique, and the United Kingdom to learn about the ways fashion can be used as a means for cultural preservation.
“My parents were immigrants who moved to South Africa during the height of the Mozambican civil war in the early ’80s, and clothing was one of ways they connected me and my siblings to our Mozambican heritage. In all of this, I want to see how culture and the economy intersect to preserve or change group identities,” she said.
Mnisi intends to apply to graduate programs in public policy with the goal of being a legislator.
Laurie Hamame can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @HamameNews on Twitter.