A student from the inaugural class of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls (OWLAG) in South Africa, is now a Ph.D. graduate — and the first alumni to receive a doctorate’s degree.

“The level of support I received was from the ground up. I had people who believed in me so much, they started calling me ‘Doc’ even before I completed my qualification,” Lindiwe Tsope
said in an interview with her alma mater. 

Tsope was a part of Winfrey’s inaugural 2007 class at OWLAG and graduated in 2012.

She went on to receive her Ph.D. in sociology from Rhodes University in South Africa, where she also completed her undergraduate and master’s degree studies. During her time at Rhodes, Tsope conducted ground-breaking research on the experience of students and staff living with HIV/AIDS at the university. 

“It was not an easy journey because students were not comfortable to share their statuses. COVID-19 also intensified the limitations for the study because the university closed and everyone went home,” Tsope said, Sunday Times reported.

“The main goal I wanted to achieve was to understand what it feels like to live with HIV, to understand what people living with HIV are saying about interventions that are in place for them at the university and to find out where they place themselves,” she shared.

While the 27-year-old's hard work and determination led her to this moment, she also credits Winfrey for investing in her and her classmates not just financially, after she’s spent millions on funding, but as “human beings.”

“My hope was that I would give them [the students] an opportunity to see the best of themselves reflected through an open mind, an open heart, to what is possible,” the media mogul said of opening the school in a 2017 interview with Variety. “And I can honestly say I have achieved that.”

Winfrey founded the school in South Africa to serve underprivileged girls who have experienced hardships, including physical and sexual abuse. 

“When most girls come to my school they have suffered six major traumas on average,” Winfrey said. “They’ve lost one parent or both, been sexually abused, physically abused. This is a generation that lost their parents to AIDS. President [Thabo] Mbeki was in office and saying AIDS was not a real disease, and antiretroviral drugs were not provided. There was a time at the school during 2007, 2008, 2009, when we were losing a parent a week. Every week a child was being called in and we had to tell them, you lost your mom, you lost your dad.”

However, the former talk show host turned the students strife' into success stories. Several girls who attended the school have gone on to prominent institutions like Stanford, Brown, Oxford, Cape Town and the University of Southern California. 

“She’s not just giving of her time, she’s giving of her talent,” the head of the school, Melvin King, said about Winfrey, who offered a self-taught, Life Lessons 101 course. “She’s visible, she’s present, she is amongst the students. That is a very unique feature for any founder of a school to be so personally invested.”

In regards to her time at OWLAG, Tsope shared that it was an eye-opening experience that helped cultivate her into the person she is today.   

“You realise that your situation is not exceptional. You do not realise you are poor until you come out of it,” she said. “At no point did I feel my background was stopping me. They taught us our backgrounds are not who we are and that there is a bigger world out there. We got personal development. It was a holistic experience that I wish every Black to go through.”