We've all been to enough commencement speeches to know that a good speaker is rare, and a memorable message is rarer. Well, students at Morehouse College can count the speech they heard yesterday as breaking the mold--and the bank (for a mere mortal).
Commencement speaker Robert F. Smith, CEO of Vista Equity Partners, a private equity firm that invests in software, data, and technology driven companies, announced at the end of his commencement speech to the class of 2019 that he and his family had established a grant that would pay off each graduate's student loans, to the tune of an estimated $40 million.
It's the single largest gift in Morehouse College history. Said Smith, "On behalf of the eight generations of my family that have been in this country, we're gonna put a little fuel in your bus. This is my class, 2019. And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans."
Watch his uplifting announcement and the stunned and ecstatic reaction from the crowd.
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. In some ways, it was a liberation gift for these young men that just opened up their choices."
Tina Mitchom, the mother of Aaron Mitchom, one of the lucky graduates, told AP that eight family members, including the student's 76-year old grandmother, had co-signed on student loans over a four-year period to make her son's dream a reality. In one fell swoop, student loan pain for several generations of family members was gone.
I thought it was cool that the crowd immediately started chanting "MVP! MVP!" upon hearing, and absorbing, what the news meant.
I wanted to make sure you didn't miss another MVP, though.
The Most Valuable Point of the Speech
You'd better believe that hearing that $40 million in student debt was erased was a major highlight of the commencement speech. Hell, it would be the highlight of any speech. Ever. If I'd heard that at my graduation, instead of the standard "go for your dreams" talk, I might have fainted. (Some in the crowd were reported to have cried upon hearing the news.)
But the best part of the speech was Smith's push for the recipients of the gift to pay it forward. After all, he'd literally just paid them forward.
He encouraged the graduates to take care of their own community and to show it through actions, words, and deeds.
Tina Mitchom said her son is now in a position to do just that. "It takes a village," she told AP. "It now means he can start paying it forward and start closing this gap a lot sooner, giving back to the college and thinking about a succession plan for his younger siblings."
An incredible gift that helps promising young students maximize their chance for early success, feeding into a virtuous cycle: That's as good as it gets.
A tip of the graduation cap (and a fervid thrust into the air of said cap) to Smith and to all those debt-free indebted graduates.