08/22/2006 at 04:00 PM EDT
Oprah Winfrey is one step closer to opening her long-anticipated South African girls' school, telling the first 73 ecstatic students in person over the weekend that the program will prepare them to attend "the best universities in the world."
The talk-show host has been planning the $40 million Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, to be built on 52.7 acres south of Johannesburg, since 2002. On Sunday in Pretoria, she told the 73 girls aged 11 and 12 – who thought they were attending another interview – that they'd been accepted.
Speaking at Sunday's event, Winfrey, 52, said the project was a natural for her. "I grew up with my grandmother," she said, according to the Guardian. "We had almost nothing, but my grandmother believed I had to give back what I received. This is so exciting for me, for the girls and for their families. South Africa is like my second home and I want to give something here. I feel this project is blessed."
Winfrey interviewed many of the 3,000 applicants herself, looking for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds who showed intelligence and a "spark" of leadership.
The school's curriculum of leadership training and traditional academic study will help the girls "grow up to help their families and communities," Winfrey said.
Humanitarian causes are nothing new for Oprah. The breadth and scope of her various projects earned her a Global Leadership Award from the United Nations in 2004. In May, writing in Time magazine, U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice said Winfrey "reminds us that we who flourish in freedom have a moral responsibility to help others who have the desire to succeed but just need an opportunity."