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News & Events for the Smith College Community
Campus Life May 12, 2017

Morgan Mpungose ’17: An Extra Special Commencement

Morgan Mpungose
Morgan Mpungose '17 was among the first students of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. Photo by Kathleen Dooher.

Excitement is building about Smith’s 139th Commencement next week, when global media leader, philanthropist, producer and actress Oprah Winfrey will deliver the Commencement address.

Winfrey will receive an honorary degree at the graduation ceremony Sunday, May 21, at 10 a.m. in the Quadrangle, along with four other exceptional women leaders:

  • Clare Higgins
  • Michelle Kwan
  • Henrietta Mann
  • Erin O’Shea ’88

Smith will award more than 660 degrees on May 21 to undergraduates and graduate students. Seating in the Quad is limited to graduates and their guests.

One senior, Nonkululeko (Morgan) Mpungose ’17, feels a particular thrill about Winfrey’s presence at graduation.

Mpungose studied at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, which opened in South Africa in 2007 to educate academically gifted girls from impoverished backgrounds. At age 12, Mpungose was handpicked by Winfrey to be among the first 152 students at the school—“my daughters,” Winfrey calls them.

Click on the arrow to hear what else Mpungose had to say in an interview that will appear—along with other Commencement coverage—in the Summer 2017 Smith Alumnae Quarterly.

An Interview with Morgan Mpungose ’17

“I was born in Durban, South Africa, in 1994, the year that marked the end of apartheid. This meant I was the first in my family to be born into a free country. My mother gave me the name Nonkululeko, meaning “mother of freedom.” This was a symbol of my mother’s hope that I was going to be different, that I was going to walk a different path in life.

Apartheid was designed to oppress people of color in South Africa, so even when it ended, it left our families with little to live on. This was catastrophic for girls’ education. In households where families are dealing with disease, loss and poverty, oftentimes education isn’t a priority, especially for girls.

My mother was a domestic worker at the time, and I imagined I would grow up to do the same work. College was not within the realm of my imagination. My mother sold almost everything we had to put my brother and me in school, and we were on the verge of throwing in the towel when I was selected to be in the first class at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls.

For a girl like me, this was an opportunity of a lifetime. My world expanded so much. Suddenly, I had bigger and better dreams for myself. For the first time, I was seeing myself through my mother’s eyes: a girl who, with opportunity, had the potential to transform herself and her community.

I first learned of Smith at the academy, when Assistant Director of Admission Meredith McDill delivered an amazing presentation on the college’s advocacy for women’s education. I was sold! Smith recognizes that making a difference in the world can be done through gathering women from all over, educating them and then sending them back to uplift their communities. That resonated with a deeper part of me.

Today, I get to sit in a classroom with women from all over. I get to engage in in-depth conversations with them, absorbing as much of their energy as possible in the hope that one day my cup will be full and I’ll be able to return to South Africa and uplift my community.

I’m studying to become an architect. My plan is to go to grad school at the University of Southern California and get my architecture license before I return home. I’m really passionate about low-income housing. I’m going to work with low-income communities in South Africa to create homes that provide for their needs.”

About Commencement 2017

Commencement and Reunion festivities will begin Thursday, May 18, with receptions, performances, celebratory meals and panel discussions for students, faculty, staff and alumnae.

On Saturday, May 20, the traditional Ivy Day parade and Illumination Night celebrations will feature seniors donning ivy garlands and thousands of glowing paper lanterns lighting the campus.

Information about how to view Smith’s commencement, including Oprah Winfrey’s Commencement Address is online.