The Oprah Winfrey Effect: How 'Mom O' Changed One Leadership Academy Alum's Life (Exclusive)
By Jennifer Drysdale
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Oprah Winfrey and her longtime partner, Stedman Graham, never had any children together, but over the last 12 years, she's become "Mom O" to hundreds of girls.
In 2007, the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls (OWLAG) opened in South Africa, giving educational opportunities to bright, intelligent girls struggling with poverty in the area. The inaugural class of 72 girls graduated in 2011, and have since gone on to achieve great things, like furthering their studies at such top universities as Harvard and Oxford. One of those graduates, Thando Dlomo, ended up getting a master's degree at the University of Southern California, and now works at Entertainment Tonight as a digital associate at ET Live.
"I dreamt a lot of things. I couldn't imagine what they looked like, but in my dreams, I have seen this room before," she told ET's Kevin Frazier on Wednesday. "Literally, [Winfrey] turned my whole life around."
Dlomo is featured alongside Winfrey in Oprah's Daughters, which is streaming now on the People TV app. “They are my greatest, deepest joy," Winfrey, who was raised by her grandmother in rural poverty, told People of her OWLAG students. "They’re the daughters I did not have. I never thought that that mothering instinct was something for me."
Dlomo, now 25, recalled "idolizing" Winfrey before being accepted to OWLAG -- telling ET that she "flipped" out when she met the media mogul for the first time. Now, however, they're like family.
"In South Africa, if you are older and a woman, you are going to be [called] 'Mom,' 'Auntie,' 'Mama' ... because that is how we show respect to our elders, so it was really funny seeing her get comfortable with that," she said of Winfrey. "[But] 'Mom O' does have a ring to it."
"Mom, that is a big thing to place on somebody, but you have so much respect for her and love for her like a mom. It's the least I can [do to] show you that kind of respect for everything you have done," she added.
Dlomo called Winfrey her "comfort through everything," including the death of her mother. "I go to OWLAG and she is there, I lose my mom, she sits there, literally holds me like a kid in her arms and tells me it is going to be OK. I go to the U.S., and she is like, 'You are far from home now, but I'm here, and you are going to be OK,'" she shared. "She walked me at my high school graduation, my undergrad graduation, and my master's graduation, so she literally is always there."
"How do I even say thank you to this woman?" she asked during her sit-down with Frazier. "It is so hard to figure out how to thank her and figure out what will suffice because thank you just doesn't feel like it is enough." The pair decided to start with a phone call.
"Hi, darling! How are you doing?" the TV icon asked when Dlomo put her on speaker phone, before praising her journey to Frazier.
"The greatest reward anybody can have is giving your presence, your time, your energy, your love to somebody else and then seeing that help somebody flower into who they were supposed to be," Winfrey said. "So watching Thando become all that I knew she could [be] when she first walked into our little meeting room with her uniform on so many years ago, it's been one of life's great rewards, to see that happen and to see her blossom into this incredible woman that she is still becoming."
"It's not over, she's just getting started," she continued of Dlomo. "It's a hell of a start, and she is representative of all these other girls... She's just representative of what we've tried to do at the academy and what giving a person the opportunity to have an education and see the best of themselves can do for everybody."
"She teaches me a lot, she teaches me, No. 1, authenticity is key and that people feel your energy and if it is not real and true to who you are, people will reject it," Dlomo revealed. "[She tells me to] embrace that, even in moments where I'm like 'Whoa, is this happening?' To embrace it, it's meant for me."