In 2006, four white Free State students made a video humiliating black cleaning women and expressing opposition to integrating the historically white school. Jonathan Jansen, who in 2009 became the university's first black rector, has been credited with pushing for change.
Nadipha Jacobs, a black student, says the university is slowly becoming more tolerant, and that the visit from the world's most recognizable black businesswoman shows that.
"In many ways, I feel the university and its people have grown," said Jacobs, who started as an undergraduate in 1996 and now is a graduate student specializing in development studies.
Winfrey, who is to give a speech and take questions from students on Friday, has yet to comment on her university honor.
Chantell De Reuck, a white graduate student strolling across campus Friday with her friend Jacobs, said other divides have been bridged in recent years, not just along racial lines. When she arrived as an undergraduate in 1999, she was among only six English-speaking students in a dorm dominated by Afrikaners, descendants of early Dutch settlers who speak Afrikaans. The English students stuck together then. Not now, De Reuck said.
De Reuck said black and white students at the university can connect to Winfrey's personal story of early years of struggle and abuse, and find inspiration in her current success.
A 4,500-seat auditorium is expected to be full for the one-person graduation ceremony. Tickets were sold for 10 rand (about $1). Local reporters said hawkers selling fake tickets on Bloemfontein streets didn't increase the price. University officials warned that those with fake tickets would not be admitted.
Winfrey is a frequent visitor to South Africa, where she opened a school in 2007 dedicated to giving bright young women of all races opportunities in a society where they are handicapped by conservative traditions as well as the poor schools that are a legacy of apartheid.
The school's first class just graduated, overcoming early setbacks that included a scandal over a dormitory supervisor accused of trying to kiss and fondle students. The supervisor was acquitted of sexual assault charges last year.