Oprah Winfrey delivered the commencement speech to the 2023 class at her alma mater, Tennessee State University, and revealed that it took her nearly a decade to graduate.
During her remarks, the media mogul explained how she was just “one credit shy of qualifying for her diploma when her career in broadcast journalism took off.”
“I was majoring in speech communication and drama. I wanted to be an actress, but my father had proclaimed that no daughter of mine is going to be on somebody’s casting couch,” said Winfrey, “And so I decided, all right, I will teach.”
Even when Winfrey received a call from Nashville’s WLAC-TV’s lead news anchor who offered her a job opportunity as an anchor, she initially turned them down. “I said no sir…My father says I have to finish school and school is just too important,” adding, “[a]nd I doubt that my dad would even let me do something like that.”
After Winfrey relayed these developments to her Scenic Design professor, she recalled how he gave her a look “as if I didn’t have a brain that God gave lettuce.” As Winfrey told the graduates, “He said, ‘this is what you get an education for. So that CBS Channel Five will call you. You and your father ought to know that.”
Thank goodness for that professor, because Winfrey ended up taking that job, shifting her class schedule around her sophomore year so she could be done every day by 2:00pm, with enough time to get to work and start her shift from 2:30 to 10:30 pm at the news station and be home before her dad’s “ironclad 11:00 curfew.”
By the time she was supposed to graduate, Winfrey’s career was in full swing, so she opted to focus on work instead of finishing up her degree requirements.
But even after Winfrey had already won her first two Emmys, she said that her dad still was nagging her repeatedly about finishing school at TSU, constantly asking “When you going to get that degree?”
“So I got my degree from Tennessee State, right around the time I got my third Emmy,” said Winfrey who in 1988, was also in the beginning stages of launching her own production company Harpo Studios.
Winfrey would go on to win 19 Emmys, a Tony, 12 NAACP Image Awards, receive Oscar nominations for her work as a producer for Selma and her role in The Color Purple, on top of becoming the first Black woman billionaire in the country.
During her address, Winfrey delivered the encouraging message for students “to follow their purpose and to listen to the ‘still, small voice,’ that will lead them to a space where they would ‘begin to know your own heart and figure out what matters most,’” Black Enterprise reports, while inspiring audience members to heed the call for purposeful work with stories of the two Justin’s, Jones and Pearson, state reps from Tennessee who were recently expelled after protesting gun laws.
As Winfrey said, our country is “not a finished product,” stating “Anything is possible. The wheels are still in spin. Saints walk among us. And as Nelson Mandela so brilliantly demonstrated, it’s better to be hopeful than fearful, if for no other reason than that hope brings us one step closer to joy.”