Graduation season is a special time for celebrating the hard-earned achievements of friends and loved ones. For the graduates of Morehouse College, this year’s commencement ceremony came with a life-changing surprise at the hands of a generous billionaire.
Billionaire Robert F. Smith has pledged to eliminate the student loan debt of the entire 2019 Morehouse College graduating class.
— Morehouse College (@Morehouse) May 19, 2019
The technology investor and philanthropist stunned fellow classmates with this news during their graduation ceremony on Sunday. Morehouse is one of over 100 historically black colleges and universities in America.
Smith, who received an honorary doctorate from the Atlanta-based university during Sunday morning’s commencement ceremony, had already announced a $1.5 million gift to the school.
The initial donation is set to fund several student scholarships as well as a new park on campus.
In his keynote speech, he addressed the class of nearly 400 graduates in front of their friends, family, and fellow alumni.
Smith offered words of inspiration and guidance to the graduates, quoting Martin Luther King Jr.
“When Dr. King said that the ‘arc of the moral universe bends toward justice,’ he wasn’t saying it bends on its own accord. It bends because we choose to put our shoulders into it together and push,” Smith said during his speech.
And promised his fellow classmates a gift on behalf of his family.
“On behalf of the eight generations of my family who have been in this country, we’re gonna out a little fuel in your bus,” Smith said.
He then turned to the alumni in the audience with a challenge.
“Now I’ve got the alumni over there. This is a challenge to you, alumni. This is my class, 2019. And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans.”
Smith’s overwhelming generosity was met with deafening cheers and a standing ovation. According to a Morehouse rep, the cost of the grant will total approximately $40 million and is the biggest single gift in the school’s history.
The announcement shocked graduates and staff of Morehouse.
“This is my class,” Smith said, “and I know my class will pay this forward.”
Many couldn’t believe their good fortune.
22-year-old finance major Aaron Mitchom would owe roughly $200,000 in student loans if it weren’t for Dr. Smith.
“I don’t have to live off of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I was shocked. My heart dropped. We all cried. In the moment it was like a burden had been taken off,” Mitchom said.
Tonga Releford, whose son Charles Releford III is also a 2019 graduate from Morehouse, estimated that his student loans would have totaled $70,000.
“I feel like it’s Mother’s Day all over again,” she said.
Morehouse College president David A. Thomas said the gift will have a lasting impact on the students’ futures.
“Many of my students are interested in going into teaching, for example, but leave with an amount of student debt that makes that untenable,” Thomas said. “In some ways, it was a liberation gift for these young men that just opened up their choices.”