Having a mentor like uber-successful TV host Oprah Winfrey means that expectations to be great are pretty high. As Bongeka Zuma graduated salutatorian from Spelman College with Winfrey proudly watching, it was obvious that her astonishing accomplishment did not disappoint.
Zuma was one of 483 bright and beautiful Black women who received a degree from Spelman College on May 15. The Georgia International Convention Center was filled with the HBCU grads’ proud relatives and friends, including Winfrey, who Zuma affectionately calls Mum O. Ever since Winfrey opened the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls (OWLAG) in 2007, she’s shared a mother-daughter relationship with all the students, and her connection with Zuma is no different.
Growing up in Bulwer, a small village in South Africa with limited education opportunities, Zuma’s family did not expect that one day their ambitious little girl would attend the high school of a world-famous billionaire. But her passion for learning led her to be chosen from thousands of girls to attend Winfrey’s prestigious academy.
Zuma picked up plenty of valuable skills at OWLAG, including the polishing of her English. She graduated valedictorian and then came all the way to Atlanta to attend Spelman, where she majored in biology. During this time, she immersed herself in biological research at Spelman, Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The busy student also found time in her schedule to join the most prestigious undergrad honor societies in the country, including Alpha Lambda Delta and the Beta Beta Beta Biology Honor Society.
Calling Zuma’s academic career eventful would be an understatement. It’s not quite over yet, but with her Spelman days now behind her, she’s beginning a new chapter in her life that will bear even more opportunities for the scholar to make an impressive impact in whatever she does.
Zuma let rolling out in on how Winfrey has been a huge inspiration in her life, how she adjusted to living in America, and what’s next for her career.
In what ways did attending the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls help prepare you for completing your undergraduate education at Spelman?
The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls (OWLAG) was my first introduction into a world greater than my village in South Africa. It allowed me to realize that there is so much more that the world has to offer, and hence, made me extremely keen to see and experience more. That curiosity and eagerness to live life to the fullest that was planted in my mind allowed me to flourish at Spelman because I used it to fuel my academics as well as other activities I took part in. OWLAG taught me to use my disadvantaged past as a way to fuel my passion for women empowerment, which was further strengthened at Spelman. Lastly, OWLAG also provided me with the best academic preparation that the world has to offer.
What are your academic plans now that you have earned your biology degree?
In the fall, I will be traveling to the University of Oxford in England to pursue a master’s degree in medical anthropology. After completing my degree, I hope to pursue a doctor of medicine degree either in the United States or England.
What is the best advice Ms. Winfrey has given you?
It is hard to narrow it to just one thing because there are dozen of lessons and advice I have received from her that has carried me through these past four years. One of the very first lessons that I learned from her is that there is no bar in life. She always mentioned this to let us know that there is no limit to what we can achieve in life or how much we can succeed. The other advice that I carry with me at all times is that failure is just the universe redirecting you in a different path. That has allowed me to not waste too much time worrying about things that I was not successful in. That has allowed me to view them differently, hence, not letting them hinder my progress. I can write a whole essay about lessons from her, but these particular two have been quite central in my success in college.
What did you do to stay focused in college?
There are a number of things that have allowed me to remain focused in school. I made sure that I surrounded myself with friends who had similar values and goals as mine. I also made connections with professors whom I knew always had my best interest at heart. That allowed me to easily ask for help and also remain focused.
Above my bed, I keep pictures of Mum O, Ms. Winfrey. Because of this I am constantly reminded of her love and her unwavering support and belief in me and my abilities. I am also reminded of all that she has invested in me. Additionally, I keep pictures of my family, those who are still alive and those who have passed on. I also keep pictures of my home in South Africa. I believe that this has kept me grounded and constantly reminded me of where I come from, all shoulders that I stand on, and the prayers that have brought me this far.
What was your best memory attending OWLAG?
My favorite memory was a community service program that the whole school participated in called “OWLAGive.” During OWLAGive, all the students in the school were able to participate in a week-long program solely dedicated to service. I remember my sisters and I wearing blue t-shirts on which “OWLAGive” was written, and building houses in one of the townships with Habitat for Humanity. I also remember volunteering at an [elder residence] home and visiting the elderly, some of whom had not been visited by their families in a long time. We also spent time in a disadvantaged school helping make a garden for the students so that they would have vegetables for their school feeding system. This is my favorite memory because it stands at the very core of the values we were taught at the Academy, such as servant leadership. It also stands at the core of the vision of the school, which includes creating leaders who would transform South Africa. We had an amazing time together as sisters serving the very same communities that we come from.
What helped you adjust to and learn about life in the United States?
Before college started, all the girls from the Academy who were about to start college in the U.S. participated in a pre-college session that introduced us to American culture. Having roommates who were American definitely helped my adjustment process. I learned a great deal from them. Additionally, I tried to absorb all that I could in classes and asked a lot of questions.
How did your family feel about you attending Spelman and being educated in the U.S.?
They are very proud and happy for me. Sometimes my mother will call me and tell me that she still cannot believe that her daughter goes to school in the States. They are happy that I am doing well. I feel like they get to live the world through me and also through the stories that I tell them when I go back. I think they like that.
What do you want to do after completing graduate school?
I plan to pursue a doctor of medicine degree and practice as an OB/GYN. Ultimately, my long-term goal is to get involved in global health and establish an organization like Partners In Health on my own continent.