By Dan Yount
Dayton area resident Steven Geraud Anderson II, who is one of the 400 Morehouse College students who graduated Sunday in Atlanta, said he was incredulous when he heard the surprise announcement by commencement speaker and billionaire Robert F. Smith, that Smith and his family would be paying off their student debt.
I had to look around me to see the reactions of the other graduates to confirm it was true,’’ said Anderson, a graduate of Wayne High School in Huber Heights, Ohio. “Did he really say that? It was an amazing feeling.’’
Anderson received college scholarship money from organizations around Dayton to help him with his college expenses, but says he “racked up” almost $180,000 in student loans before graduating cum laude as an English major Sunday. He added when he went on stage to receive his diploma, he looked Smith in the eye and thanked him as he shook his hand.
“I am most excited with the blessing from Mr. Smith,’’ he said. “This gift opened so many more doors for me in that I can now concentrate on considering my purpose, rather than worrying about how I am going to pay off my student loans. I am passionate about public service, public policy and public leadership, and I hope to have a career in those areas. All of the graduates are so grateful to God and to their families and friends who have kept them in their prayers. This was the answer to all of our prayers.’’
Anderson’s family, including father Steven Anderson of Dayton, mother Regina Anderson of Dayton and other members attended the ceremony. “They could not believe it, either, and all started jumping up and down. This affected so many people,’’ he said.
Smith, who received an honorary doctorate at the same graduation exercises, told the graduates that the only way “for us to repay him was to pay it forward,’’ Anderson said.
In his commencement address, Smith said being on the bus toward success isn’t enough. “You want to own it, you want to drive it, and you want to pick up as many people as you can along the way.”
He charged the Class of 2019 with doing its part to improve the lives of Black America. “I’m putting some fuel into your bus, “ he said. “I’m counting on you to load up that bus.’’
A statement from Morehouse College officials released Tuesday said, “We, at Morehouse College, would like to thank Vista Equity Partners founder, chairman and CEO Robert F. Smith, our honorary alumnus, for the surprise gift that he offered to the graduating class at Morehouse’s 135th Commencement ceremony. To be free from the financial burden of paying off student loans will be life-changing for the Class of 2019. Our Office of Business and Finance, as well as our Office of Enrollment Management have been working diligently to calculate the student loan debt and other details of this gift. As soon as we have a final figure, we will share it with our new graduates so that they can continue on the path to careers and top-tier graduate schools student loan debt free.”
The gift has been estimated to be worth up to $40 million.
The announcement came as a surprise to Smith’s staff and to the staff at Morehouse.
According to “Forbes’’ magazine, Robert Smith is one of the world’s 13 Black billionaires. He is chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, a software and technology investment firm.
Also receiving an honorary degree Sunday was Oscar-nominated actress and activist Angela Bassett, who referenced Morehouse graduate the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and suggested that the Class of 2019 might emulate him, but take their own path.
This article originally appeared in the Cincinnati Herald.