Robert F. Smith (left) laughs with David Thomas, (center) and actress Angela Bassett (right) at Morehouse College in Atlanta on May 19. Smith, a billionaire technology investor and philanthropist, said he will provide grants to wipe out the student debt of the entire graduating class at Morehouse College — an estimated $40 million. (Photo: Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP/TheUndefeated)
Robert Smith

ATLANTA — Billionaire philanthropist Robert F. Smith, declaring that the Class of 2019 was “my class,” did the unthinkable at the Morehouse College commencement ceremony Sunday. He pledged to pay back the student loans of the entire graduating class, estimated at around $40 million.

Smith’s generosity is a game-changer for my Morehouse brothers. Not only is he taking pressure off of multiple generations of families, this also will be the largest donation made to a historically black college from a living donor.

Graduates, fellow students, family and friends could hardly believe what we were hearing. Tears of joy and wild cheering followed shock and disbelief when Smith announced that his family plans to create a grant to cover student loan debt.

The collective sigh of relief could be felt across the Atlanta University Center as nearly 400 new Morehouse men learned what it feels like to walk away from college with a degree in hand and no student loan debt.

“To be able to enter the workforce debt-free is a dream I couldn’t have imagined for myself,” said Corey Smith, a Morehouse Class of 2019 graduate. “Especially being in my fifth year, there were more loans I had to take out just to ensure that I was able to walk.”

Corey Smith, a sociology major from Kansas City who hadn’t heard of Robert Smith before Sunday’s commencement, was humbled. He’s not even sure how much he owes, but it will be wiped away.

“I don’t take it lightly,” Smith said. “My life has been a culmination of folks willing to invest in me, so I take it with humility and gratitude for sure.”

Robert Smith is doing more than paying students’ bills. He is making a personal investment in each graduate, removing barriers so these new graduates can go forth and change the world. Smith expects this to be the gift that keeps on giving.

“On behalf of the eight generations of my family that have been in this country, we’re going to put a little fuel in your bus,” Smith said during his commencement address. “This is my class, 2019. … I know my class will make sure they pay this forward. Let’s make sure every class has the same opportunity going forward, because we are enough to take care of our own community.”

Smith, CEO of Vista Equity Partners, a private equity firm with investments in software, data and technology, had already donated $1.5 million to Morehouse earlier this year to create a scholarship and park. Named by Forbes magazine as the richest African American in 2019, Smith is worth $5 billion. In 2017, Smith was the first African American to sign The Giving Pledge, a commitment to donate the majority of his wealth to philanthropic causes.

Smith’s generosity Sunday was applauded internationally. Bernice King, daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., praised Smith’s “love-power move” and noted that Smith purchased her father’s birth home for the National Park Service.

Dr. King graduated from Morehouse, one of many distinguished alumni. A bronze statue of King sits on the campus, and the college’s chapel bears his name.

Smith donated $20 million to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, the largest individual donation. He donated $50 million to Cornell University, his alma mater, in 2016. Smith was honored in March with the United Negro College Fund’s President’s Award at the organization’s 75th anniversary gala. In 2018, Smith was honored by Morehouse College. On Sunday, Smith and Angela Bassett received honorary degrees from Morehouse.

For many students and their families at Morehouse and other historically black colleges and universities s, the financial burden is real. Students go to school here at great sacrifice, from being on the brink of homelessness in some cases to going without food in the quest to better themselves.

“I was amazed, I really could not believe it,” Morehouse junior Anthony Johnson said of Smith’s gift. “Every year the registrar’s office is packed, so everyone has loans they have to pay back. To hear that he was committing to eliminating an entire class’s loans is incredible.”

Johnson said navigating Morehouse’s $48,700 annual tuition has been stressful. He’s thrilled for this year’s graduates but worried about next year.

“Every year the process is very overwhelming,” Johnson said. “Being a first-generation college student, I don’t have many places to turn for help, so it’s been really stressful. And it’s not like Morehouse has a huge endowment. I know there were plenty of people who struggled to get to this point, so for him to invest in the Class of 2019 in the way he did is huge.”

Smith makes clear that the gift comes with strings attached, an expectation that the recipients live up to the legacy of Morehouse and reach back to support others behind them.

“You great Morehouse men are bound only by the limits of your own conviction and creativity,” Smith told the graduates. “This degree you’ve earned is a social contract to devote your talents and energies to honoring those legends on whose shoulders you stand.”

Smith dismisses the idea that “our young brothers and sisters” are ill-equipped for the “21st-century tech-based economy.” He said we, “too, are entitled to the American Dream.”

“When Dr. King said, ‘The arc of the moral universe bends toward justice,’ he wasn’t saying it bends on its own accord,” Smith said in his commencement remarks. “It bends because we choose to put our shoulders into it together and push.”

Jonathan X. Simmons is a Morehouse College English major from Akron, Ohio. One of his favorite accomplishments is his 4.98 Uber passenger rating.

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