(CNN) – Seniors at Morehouse College were surprised on Sunday when billionaire investor Robert F. Smith announced in his keynote address that he would pay off student loan debt for the historically black college’s graduating class.
“On behalf of the eight generations of my family who have lived in this country, we are going to put some fuel on your bus,” he told recent Atlanta graduates before saying his family was creating a grant for eliminate their student loans.
The announcement was greeted with a standing ovation and chants of “MVP!”
“Now I know my class will make sure they pay this up front,” he continued. “I want my class to look at these (alumni) – these beautiful Morehouse brothers – and make sure that every class has the same opportunity in the future because we are sufficient to take care of our own community. We are sufficient to take care of our own community. make sure we have all the opportunities of the American dream. “
The exact amount to cover for the 396 students is still being worked out, school president David Thomas told CNN on Monday, but the sum will likely be in the tens of millions of dollars. Thomas called Smith’s gesture a “gift of liberation.”
“When you have to pay down your debt, the choices about what to do in the world are limited,” he said. “(Smith’s gift) gives them the freedom to follow their dreams, their passions.”
Students say they are overwhelmed with gratitude
Students couldn’t believe their ears when Smith made the announcement, graduates of the men’s college told CNN.
“We look at each other like, ‘Is he serious?’ That’s a lot of money, ”said salvation Robert James, 21.
Jonathan Epps, 22, said on Sunday afternoon that he still had not fully grasped the magnitude of the “tremendous blessing,” which he called the kindest and most generous thing he had ever had. never witnessed.
“It’s going to sink in over the years. I know that for a fact,” he said. “I still don’t really have any words.… It makes a great day even better.”
Epps said he had about $ 35,000 in student loan debt that his parents in Pleasanton, Calif., 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 children to graduate from college. His mother made many sacrifices working minimum wage jobs to support herself and her eight siblings after Dormeus’ father died at the age of 5.
In addition to the 22-year-old New Yorker’s $ 90,000 debt, he said his mother took out a loan to help him complete his education.
“All of his services, all of his gifts have not been in vain,” Dormeus said when asked what Smith’s gift meant to his family.
Art major Charles Releford III also has many siblings, and his mother, Tonga, wants them all to be part of the “Spelhouse family” which means they hope to attend Morehouse or Spelman College reserved for students. women nearby.
“For me, a mother of four, this opened up so many opportunities for the younger siblings of the Releford family,” she said.
Charles Releford said he racked up around $ 70,000 in loan debt while at Morehouse, and although the aspiring illustrator had no work in sight, he was already thinking about how he would pay it back. money.
After Smith’s announcement, however, “I’m really excited to see where my life can go now because all the different avenues are open now, so I’m not held back. There is no burden, the loans. students – I’m debt free, “Releford said.
Smith made many other charitable donations
The student benefactor also received an honorary degree on Sunday, alongside actor Angela Bassett and psychologist Edmund Gordon.
The entrepreneur, founder of investment firm Vista Equity Partners, is worth around $ 5 billion, according to Forbes, who reports he’s the richest black person in America.
Smith, 56, was a chemical engineer for Goodyear and Kraft before attending business school. He worked for Goldman Sachs, specializing in technology investments, before launching Vista Equity in 2000.
Vista Equity invests only in software, data and technology companies and claims capital commitments of $ 46 billion, the company’s website says.
Smith has a pretty generous streak. In 2016, Cornell University, one of its alma maters, renamed its School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in honor of the investor from Austin, Texas, after pledging to donate. of $ 50 million to school. He has also donated millions of dollars to cancer research and the arts.
Its Foundation Fund II provides grants under five pillars: preserving the African-American experience, protecting human rights, preserving the environment, providing music education, and supporting “core American values such as entrepreneurship,” depending on the organization.
In 2017, Smith signed the Giving Pledge, an effort led by billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates to convince wealthy Americans to give up half their fortune.
By 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, my grandparents and generations of African Americans whose names I will never know,” said Smith. “Their struggles, their courage and their progress made me struggle and succeed. My story would only be possible in America, and it is incumbent on all of us to pay for this legacy.”