Oprah Winfrey visits Elon to celebrate graduation of one of her ‘daughter girls’ 

Nosipho Shangase '17, who graduated from the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa, has become an accomplished public health scholar at Elon and will pursue her doctorate in the field. 

Oprah Winfrey with Nosipho Shangase '17 before the pair left Maynard House to attend baccalaureate. 

When she arrived at Elon from the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa nearly four years ago, Nosipho Shangase wasn’t afraid to be so far away from home because her school’s patron and namesake was “just a phone call away.”

And on Friday, as Shangase was less than 24 hours away from graduating from Elon with a bachelor’s degree in public health studies, the media mogul was much closer than a phone call — she was sitting on the front row in Alumni Gymnasium, taking in the baccalaureate ceremony.

“I’m a proud mentor Mom today, celebrating what is none other than an astounding accomplishment by my South African daughter girl Nosipho,” Winfrey said. “To understand the fullness of her journey is to understand resilience in the face of multiple adversities, pain, and loss. Her walk across the Elon stage to receive her diploma will be a victory walk. Not only for her but for me, her entire family, past and present. I along with her ancestors will be cheering the loudest!”

Sitting with Shangase in the front row at baccalaureate, Winfrey wrapped up Shangase in a big hug before departing Alumni Gym for a waiting vehicle and leaving Elon. Shangase said Winfrey has been a solid force in her life since before she was a teenager, and she’s remained in close contact with her each step of the way through her years at Elon.

“She’s been a source of support, not just financially but also mentally and emotionally throughout my years at Elon,” Shangase said of Winfrey. “She’s been a great mentor throughout.”

Winfrey hosted the award-winning “The Oprah Winfrey Show” for 25 years and launched a successful cable network, OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network. She is the founder of O, The Oprah Magazine, and oversees Harpo Films. Winfrey was awarded the country’s highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom, and has received acclaim as actress, producer and philanthropist.

Oprah Winfrey poses with President Leo M. Lambert and his wife, Laurie, and Nosipho Shangase '17. 
​Holding true to a pledge to be with each of the students from her South African leadership academy as they prepare to graduate from college, Winfrey made a visit to Elon University on Friday before heading off to deliver two commencement addresses — at Skidmore College in Sarasota Springs, New York, on Saturday and at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, on Sunday. Leadership academy classmates of Shangase are graduating from both schools.

On May 18, Winfrey delivered the commencement address at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, where she said thanks for the invitation, but said she was coming whether she was invited or not. She refers to those who attend her academy as her “daughter girls”, and of the 179 now in college, 20 are in the United States and 10 are graduating this year, including Shangase and her former classmates at Skidmore, Smith and Agnes Scott.

After arriving at Elon on Friday, Winfrey met privately with Shangase, President Leo M. Lambert and his wife, Laurie, friends and members of the Elon community at Maynard House on Friday before joining the crowd in Alumni Gymnasium to hear Rabbi Irwin Kula deliver the baccalaureate address. 

Shangase, who was orphaned at a young age, credits Winfrey’s leadership academy for transforming her into a leader and a scholar. Since it first opened in 2007, the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls has educated more than 300 young women in grades 8 through 12. Located south of Johannesburg, the academy has seen its graduates go on to a wide range of universities in South Africa, with nearly two dozen including Shangase heading to the United States for pursue a degree.

​At Elon, Shangase has been an accomplished scholar in the area of public health studies. In 2015, she received one of the first Faculty Mentored Undergraduate Research grants from Elon’s Center for Research on Global Engagement, with the award assisting her research on the development of a youth skills program to be implemented in a South African community, Kwa-Zulu Natal in KwaNdengezi township.

KwaNdengezi was the last town Shangase lived in before entering the leadership academy, and she realized that many young people in the town lacked the opportunities she had been given. “Growing up, my education was a little bit different,” Shangase said. “I had a lot of opportunities in terms of education that opened up a lot more doors later on. I realized that young people in that community did not have access to resources. They remain in the same area and are not aware of what more they can do with their futures.”

In April Shangase was presented with the Martha Smith Award for Women’s and Gender Studies in recognition for her work in pursuing a minor in women’s, gender and sexuality studies. She has been recognized annually in the Phillips-Perry Black Excellence Awards for her achievements and involvement on campus.

With mentor Cindy Fair, professor of human service studies, Shangase built upon her earlier work in KwaNdengezi with a focus on assessing the pregnancy prevention and vocational needs of South African adolescents and young adults.

“I fell in love with public health,” Shangase said. “It just clicked that this is what I wanted to do.

Along with presenting at this year’s Spring Undergraduate Research Forum, Shangase presented her research at the Society of Adolescent Health and Medicine conference in New Orleans in March, and was the recipient of the Edie Moore Student Travel Scholarship to assist her attendance at the conference. Shangase was the only undergraduate to receive the travel scholarship, with all the other awards presented to students in medical school or graduate programs. An abstract of her research appeared in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

​Shangase will enter graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she will pursue a master’s degree in epidemiology. She’s already been accepted into the doctoral program, which she will begin upon the successful completion of her master’s degree.

Before heading to Chapel Hill, Shangase will spend two months this summer in South Africa after winning a fellowship from the Centre for the Aids Programme of Research in South Africa to work on a project focusing on tuberculosis. Looking to the future, Shangase is planning to launch an organization that can act upon many of her research findings to help provide young people in KwaNdengezi with more opportunities and vocational skills.

Earlier this week, Shangase was focused on memorializing her time here at Elon with photos of herself in her graduation gear. “It just felt so good to see myself wearing the cap and gown, and it made it official that this is really happening to me,” Shangase said.