CNN

Morehouse College grads are surprised by a billionaire’s promise to pay off their student loans

May 20, 2019, 6:11 AM | Updated: 9:23 am

(CNN) — Morehouse College seniors got a surprise Sunday when billionaire investor Robert F. Smith announced during his commencement speech that he would pay off the student loan debt for the historically black college’s graduating class.

“On behalf of the eight generations of my family who have been in this country, we’re going to put a little fuel in your bus,” he told the newly minted graduates in Atlanta before saying his family was creating a grant to eliminate their student loans.

The announcement was met with a standing ovation and chants of “MVP!”

“Now, I know my class will make sure they pay this forward,” he continued. “I want my class to look at these (alumni) — these beautiful Morehouse brothers — and let’s make sure every class has the same opportunity going forward because we are enough to take care of our own community. We are enough to ensure we have all the opportunities of the American dream.”

The exact amount to be covered for the 396 students is still being calculated, Morehouse President David A. Thomas told CNN Monday, but the figure will likely be in the tens of millions of dollars. Thomas called Smith’s gesture “a liberation gift.”

“When you have to service debt, the choices about what you can go do in the world are constrained,” he said. “(Smith’s gift) gives them the liberty to follow their dreams, their passions.”

Students say they’re overwhelmed with gratitude

Students couldn’t believe their ears when Smith made the announcement, three graduates of the all-men’s college told CNN.

“We’re looking at each other like, ‘Is he being serious?’ That’s a lot of money,” salutatorian Robert James, 21, said.

Jonathan Epps, 22, said Sunday afternoon he still hadn’t fully grasped the magnitude of the “tremendous blessing,” which he called the kindest, most generous thing he’d ever witnessed.

“It’ll sink in as the years go on. I know that for a fact,” he said. “I still don’t really have words. … It makes a great day just that much better.”

Epps said he has about $35,000 in student loan debt that his parents in Pleasanton, California, had pledged to help him pay off. He couldn’t wait to break the news to them, he said.

A classmate, Elijah Nesly Dormeus, is the first of nine kids to graduate college. His mother made many sacrifices working minimum-wage jobs to provide for him and his eight siblings after Dormeus’ father died when he was 5.

In addition to the 22-year-old New Yorker’s own $90,000 debt, he said his mother took out a loan to help get him through school.

“All her serving, all her giving was not in vain,” Dormeus said when asked what Smith’s gift meant to his family.

Smith has made many other charitable donations

The students’ benefactor also received an honorary degree Sunday, along with actor Angela Bassett and psychologist Edmund Gordon.

The entrepreneur, founder of the investment firm Vista Equity Partners, is worth about $5 billion, according to Forbes, which reports he is the richest black person in America.

The 56-year-old Smith was a chemical engineer for Goodyear and Kraft before attending business school. He worked for Goldman Sachs, specializing in technology investments, before starting Vista Equity in 2000.

Vista Equity invests solely in software, data, and technology companies and boasts capital commitments of $46 billion, the company’s website says.

Smith has quite the generous streak. In 2016, Cornell University, one of his alma maters, renamed its chemical and biomolecular engineering school in honor of the Austin, Texas, investor after he committed to donating $50 million to the school. He’s also donated millions to cancer research and the arts.

His Fund II Foundation provides grants under five pillars: preserving the African-American experience, safeguarding human rights, conserving the environment, providing music education and sustaining “critical American values such as entrepreneurialism,” the organization says.

In 2017, Smith signed the Giving Pledge, an effort spearheaded by billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates to convince wealthy Americans to give away half of their fortunes.

In signing the pledge, Smith said he would focus on causes that support equality for black Americans and the environment. His wife, model Hope Dworaczyk Smith, will focus on helping children, he wrote.

“I will never forget that my path was paved by my parents, grandparents and generations of African-Americans whose names I will never know,” Smith said. “Their struggles, their courage, and their progress allowed me to strive and achieve. My story would only be possible in America, and it is incumbent on all of us to pay this inheritance forward.”

This story has been updated to reflect that the total amount Smith will pay is still being determined.

The-CNN-Wire
™ & © 2019 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Send it to the KSL NewsRadio team. here.

Today’s Top Stories

CNN

holiday deals...
Matt Egan, CNN

Shoppers are dipping into savings and going into debt. That could cause a holiday hangover

The problem, however, is that many Americans' paychecks are not keeping up with stubborn inflation.
6 hours ago
U.S. basketball player Brittney Griner, who was detained at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport and later...
Jennifer Hansler, Kylie Atwood, Jeremy Herb and MJ Lee, CNN

WNBA star Brittney Griner released from Russian detention in prisoner swap for convicted arms dealer

The Biden administration repeatedly made offers to get Whelan released as part of this deal, even after Russia made clear only Griner was acceptable.
1 day ago
...
Jeff Zeleny, Eva McKend and Gregory Krieg, CNN

Georgia voters once again have the last word during election season

During a campaign rally for Warnock in Atlanta last week, former President Barack Obama stressed the immediate impact of Democrats potentially winning a 51st Senate seat.
3 days ago
This photos shows the gate to the Duke Energy West End substation in Moore County, N.C. on Sunday, ...
Nouran Salahieh and Hannah Sarisohn, CNN

Tens of thousands still in the dark after ‘targeted’ attacks on North Carolina power substations

With no suspects or motive announced, the FBI joins the investigation into power outages in a North Carolina county.
3 days ago
Man who shot Lady Gaga's dog walker...
Taylor Romine and Elizabeth Wolfe, CNN

Man involved in shooting Lady Gaga’s dog walker sentenced to prison

The dog walker, Ryan Fischer, was walking Lady Gaga's three French bulldogs on February 24, 2021 when he was accosted and shot.
3 days ago
goblin mode...
Christian Edwards, CNN

‘Goblin mode’ chosen as Oxford word of the year for 2022

According to OUP, the term refers to a behavior which is "self-indulgent, lazy, or greedy, typically in a way that rejects social norms or expectations."
4 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Spicy Homemade Loaded Taters Tots...
Macey's

5 game day snacks for the whole family (with recipes!)

Try these game day snacks to make watching football at home with your family feel like a special occasion. 
Happy joyful smiling casual satisfied woman learning and communicates in sign language online using...
Sorenson

The best tools for Deaf and hard-of-hearing workplace success

Here are some of the best resources to make your workplace work better for Deaf and hard-of-hearing employees.
Team supporters celebrating at a tailgate party...
Macey's

8 Delicious Tailgate Foods That Require Zero Prep Work

In a hurry? These 8 tailgate foods take zero prep work, so you can fuel up and get back to what matters most: getting hyped for your favorite
christmas decorations candles in glass jars with fir on a old wooden table...
Western Nut Company

12 Mason Jar Gift Ideas for the 12 Days of Christmas [with recipes!]

There are so many clever mason jar gift ideas to give something thoughtful to your neighbors or friends. Read our 12 ideas to make your own!
wide shot of Bear Lake with a person on a stand up paddle board...

Pack your bags! Extended stays at Bear Lake await you

Work from here! Read our tips to prepare for your extended stay, whether at Bear Lake or somewhere else nearby.
young boy with hearing aid...
Sorenson

Accommodations for students who are deaf and hard of hearing

These different types of accommodations for students who are deaf and hard of hearing can help them succeed in school.
Morehouse College grads are surprised by a billionaire’s promise to pay off their student loans