The commencement speaker, Robert F. Smith, the richest black man in the United States, promised to pay off the debt of all 396 graduates of the class of 2019.
John Cooper, a political science major with $98,000 in student loans, after graduating from Morehouse, a historically black college in Atlanta, May 19, 2019. Graduate Elijah Nesly Dormeus is the first of nine siblings to graduate from college, and told CNN that after his dad died when he was a kid, his mother sacrificed and worked hard to provide for her family.
"This is my class, 2019", he said, personally claiming the graduating seniors as his own. "And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans".
To put into perspective how significant this gift is, Morehouse President David A. Thomas told AP News: "Many of my students are interested in going into teaching, for example, but leave with an amount of student debt that makes that untenable". Smith said he would invest half of his net worth during his lifetime to causes that support equality for black Americans and the environment. While Smith had previously made public that he was donating $1.5 million to the college to go toward scholarships and a new park, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution says that none of Smith's staff nor the staff at Morehouse College knew of his surprise.
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"I can delete that spreadsheet", he said in an interview after the commencement. "Getting rid of their student loan debt is going to literally change the lives of every single graduate". He has built his empire on the back of his Vista Equity Partners, a venture capital firm that boasts over $46 billion in capital commitments. "'To whom much is given, much is expected.' These men can fulfill their dreams without the albatross of student debt", said another.
Smith said he wanted students to understand that part of receiving this gift is that they will also think about taking care of people behind them when they are able. "We will have additional staff on hand to ensure that all events proceed safely and with minimal disruption if any at all", the email read.
The students' benefactor also received an honorary degree Sunday, along with actor Angela Bassett and psychologist Edmund Gordon.
Smith talked briefly about his family, saying one of his daughters is graduating from New York University this week, another is finishing high school and will attend Barnard College in the fall, and his niece is graduating from his alma mater Cornell University next week.