Following A Shocking Announcement, 400 Students Graduated Debt Free

Life changes after graduation, at least not immediately. But for the 2019 graduates of Morehouse College, their lives took a dramatic turn at their own graduation ceremony, right after billionaire investor Robert F. Smith announced in a shocking commencement address that he would pay off all student loans for the entire graduating class.

It was a defining moment that prompted tears and cheers. And just like that, the relatively low-profile business leader instantly granted 400 young Black men the ability to pursue their aspirations without the financial burden of their debts—so that they are, in his own words, “bound only by the limits of (their) own conviction and creativity.”

Smith’s pledge was worth an estimated USD34 million, one that his family would pay off through a grant. A few months later, he went on to expand the gift to include all outstanding educational loans owed by the graduates’ parents.

What made Smith’s speech so powerful was how he not only called for constructive action but also walked the talk, driving home his message by boldly demonstrating what he preached.

Smith had shared with graduates the five rules that he lived by:

  1. Success takes hard work, so embrace the grind.
  2. Take thoughtful risks and bet on yourself.
  3. Your words define you, so be intentional about what you say.
  4. Be confident in your own worth and earn your respect through the quality of your work.
  5. Never forget your roots. Support the community that had your back and help others succeed.

“We all have the responsibility to liberate others so that they can become their best selves—in human rights, the arts, business, and in life,” Smith said. “More than the money we make, the awards, or recognition, or titles we earn, each of us will be measured by how much we contribute to the success of the people around us.”

And it was to his last point that Smith made an example of himself by pledging to help graduates eliminate their debts so that they can walk an unburdened path to success and focus on making the world a better place.
There was no need for his audience to read between the lines to understand what Smith was saying. He had allowed them to experience first-hand what it was like to benefit from community kindness. And this, in many unsaid ways, would inspire them to pay it forward.

Smith’s clarion call to action got people reflecting on their own philanthropy. And such unconventional deeds would surely not be the last we hear of, as more will follow in his footsteps.

Smith’s role models were his parents. He grew up watching them donate their limited resources to charities on an ongoing basis. And it was from them he learnt that anyone could give back regardless of their personal circumstances. It was now Smith’s turn to be a positive role model for others. And because he could, he did it in a much bigger way. But the bottom line was that he ensured such benevolent values got passed on from one generation to the next.

We may not have the same capacity as Smith to contribute at such a scale. But the smallest gestures of intentional action, words, or deeds shall count to cumulative change in the community. May we strive to give back in our best capacity and fulfil our social responsibilities. After all, we are all beneficiaries of a former legacy.