BY NEDRA RHONE AND ERIC STIRGUS
Students of the 2019 graduating class at Morehouse College were still in a daze Tuesday after billionaire Robert F. Smith pledged to pay off their student loans owed to the school.
While the details were still to come on just how that would happen, students were feeling emotions ranging from relief to inspiration. Many of them were already thinking of ways to follow through on Smith’s request that they pay it forward.
Here’s what some members of the graduating class had to say about the experience, the impact on their future and how they hope to make a difference.
‘THEY ALL BET ON ME’
Aaron Mitchom had a thought when billionaire investor Robert F. Smith began his commencement speech Sunday at Morehouse College. “I did the calculations and wondered what if this guy decided to pay my student loans,” Mitchom, a finance major, wondered during the ceremony held on the campus grounds.
Tears rolled down Mitchom’s cheeks when Smith made his surprise announcement that he would, as Mitchom hoped, pay the student loan debt for the entire graduating class. “Thank you, Jesus. I’m debt-free,” Mitchom, 22, said aloud in the morning sun.
Mitchom’s student loans totaled $200,000, he said in a telephone interview. He said the first private student loan he took had an 11.85% compound interest rate. At the advice of classmates, Mitchom took out a federal loan in his second year at Morehouse.
Mitchom said his parents, grandmother, aunt, sister and brother-in-law all co-signed loans for him.
“They all bet on me. That’s why it’s such a big blessing,” he said.
Mitchom said he planned to refinance his student loan after graduation.
If all went well, Mitchom hoped his monthly loan payment would be $1,000 a month. His first loan payment is due in November, and he is now anxious for Morehouse to announce how Smith’s donation will be managed.
In the meantime, Mitchom is job hunting with some finance firms. He someday wants to start his own equity firm, like Smith did.
“You do what I want to do. You look like me. There’s not many people in that world who look like me,” Mitchom said of Smith.
Mitchom’s plans to pay it forward include mentoring students and giving money back to Morehouse. “There’s no excuse why we can’t do that.”
COMING FULL CIRCLE
By changing majors during his junior year at Morehouse College from business marketing to Cinema, Television and Emerging Media Studies, Brooklen McCarty became a fifth-year senior.
“I was always told you have to graduate on time, get in and get out, but I was trying to follow my passion and that required me to stay a fifth year. I beat myself up a little bit, but I understood I was destined for more,” said the 23-year-old.
McCarty knew that extra year would add to his student loan debt, but it was an $80,000 risk he took on himself.
When Robert F. Smith announced he would pay the student loans for everyone in the Class of 2019, McCarty quickly realized it was a once-in-a-lifetime moment.
“We looked to our left and our right and everyone was trying to confirm, ‘Did he just say he was going to pay off our debt?’ ” he said by phone on Tuesday. “It was an amazing experience. Tears were flowing. I have never seen the promise of God come full circle.”
McCarty’s connection to Smith began long before the billionaire’s announcement. After prolific filmmaker Deon Taylor (most recently of “The Intruder,” for which Smith was an executive producer) visited the campus, students followed up on social media. “I noticed one person was liking all of our comments. That was Robert Smith,” McCarty said.
With plans to become a full-time filmmaker and join the Directors Guild and the IATSE Local 600, International Cinematographers Guild in Atlanta, McCarty hopes to bring black male narratives from all ends of the spectrum to the screen.
On Sunday, he sat with his parents in the hotel lobby talking for hours about how they could pay Smith’s donation forward.
“We had talked about a fundraiser in the past, but it just never seemed like we were in a position to give to someone not necessarily from a monetary standpoint, but from an influential standpoint,” he said.
After Smith’s action, his family examined the possibilities with new eyes. “It doesn’t matter who is giving, it just matters that some sort of change is being made, so we solidified plans for a scholarship in the next two years under the names of my grandparents on both sides. I am big on legacy and passing something to the generation after,” he said.
When Jonathan Epps, 22, heads to Brazil in 2020 on a nine-month Fulbright grant, he will do so knowing he has left $30,000 to $35,000 in student loan debt in the past.
“I plan to attend law school in 2021. It is a very expensive proposition, and I knew I would have to take out more loans on top of the loan I had to take coming out of undergrad,” Epps said. “With one gesture, Robert F. Smith really changed everything for me and my future,” said the political science major, who hopes to focus on civil rights law. “It was a revolutionary gesture by him.”
Epps happens to be a triplet. His two sisters graduated from Wake Forest University in Salem, N.C., just days after his graduation from Morehouse. “My parents, as you can imagine, were very stressed trying to put three kids through college simultaneously, and loans factored into how they funded our education,” he said.
Epps had an academic scholarship for $15,000 per semester, which helped a lot, but he also depended on his parents and other sources of outside funding to pay the bills. He said he and his fellow graduates are still in disbelief. “We are still buzzing about it. The world is still buzzing about it. It was a blessing,” he said.
When Robert F. Smith asked them to pay their good fortune forward, Epps immediately thought of the work he did as a tutor at Fickett Elementary School in Atlanta.
“I have been tutoring there for the last three years since the beginning of my sophomore year. It is a predominantly Black school. As a student, I felt like I was paying it forward,” he said.
As he moves into his career, he plans to serve others in a variety of different ways. “Maybe it is giving money or doing community service on the weekends. Maybe it is in my job as a lawyer doing pro bono services. I don’t think (Smith) meant for his vision of paying it back to be limited to one specific thing. We have to all do it in our own individual ways.”
Just a few days ago, Joshua Reed’s situation was unique. He was one of the few students at Morehouse College who did not have student loans to pay. Now that billionaire Robert F. Smith is paying off loans for the entire graduating class, Reed no longer suffers from survivor’s guilt.
“I knew my brothers were going to start all of their respective fields burdened by debt for 10 to 20 years,” said Reed. “That was an issue for all of my friends, and it hurt me, because it was like, ‘I can’t help you with this.’ You get survivor’s guilt because you are not struggling with this. What Robert F. Smith gave us was freedom. You don’t have to worry about Sallie Mae knocking at your door. I am so relieved and so happy for them.”
Reed, 21, received a scholarship that covered most of his Morehouse tuition. “I was blessed enough to receive a full scholarship from Morehouse. I also received some smaller scholarships. My family covered the $1,000-$2,000 more per semester,” said Reed, a Cinema, Television and Emerging Media Studies major.
This fall, he will attend New York University to get a master of fine arts in film. Though he was also accepted at the prestigious University of Southern California film school, Reed considered NYU after visiting the school in spring 2018.
“I did a domestic exchange program at NYU. I knew Spike Lee went to NYU and I wanted to see where he studied. I saw their teaching philosophy and how they approach film,” he said.
Reed is considering three career paths. “I love to write and might want to be a showrunner for a scripted TV series, or direct films or I was thinking about being a film editor. I really do enjoy editing,” he said.
Even though he is not directly benefiting from Smith’s grant, he said the bar is high and the charge to pay it forward applies to everyone. At Morehouse, that has generally meant mentorship and community service, rather than monetary donations, particularly among younger alumni, he said. But that is already changing.
“My friends have already made a pledge to raise $100,000 by age 32. I think across the board all of us are going to do something, and I am included in that number,” Reed said.
‘A CLEAN SLATE’
He had no intention of going to Morehouse, even though it was his father’s alma mater. Lennard Long had played golf since high school and had set his sights on playing in college for an NCAA Division I school. Just as he was about to commit to one such institution, a troubling event would change his mind.
“Before I was able to commit, a young Black boy was shot by the police. I was really disturbed by the things they were saying in the group chats for my class at the school I wanted to go to,” said Long, 21, by phone.
He chose Morehouse instead. “I had a golf scholarship, a D.C. residential scholarship and other scholarships and my parents helped,” he said, but he still had more than $20,000 in loans.
He described Robert F. Smith’s announcement as surreal. “My sister is 38 and she is still paying off debts from law school. For me to start with a clean slate, it made a surreal day turn into a dream,” he said.
Long will return to his hometown of Washington, D.C., this summer to serve as director of a golf mentorship program.
“We take kids who have low-offense crimes and mentor them for eight weeks during the summer. At the end of the program, they are able to get their records expunged,” he said.
He hopes to consider other opportunities in the sports world such as public relations or a role that would allow him to engage sports teams as active members in their communities.
Once he is on that career path, he hopes to have a scholarship fund directly connected to Morehouse and to address some of the issues he saw as a student at the college, such as buying new equipment to upgrade the school’s training facilities for athletes.
As an Oprah Winfrey Scholar, Ross Jordan entered Morehouse with half of his tuition paid. Then Robert F. Smith announced he was paying for the rest. At first, Jordan thought it was a joke.
The kinesiology major was bound for Teachers College, Columbia University to earn a master’s degree in physical education saddled with $50,000 in undergraduate loans.
“Some of us had a lot of loans, and that generous act was overwhelming in a sense. It helps more people than just seniors — family members, friends, co-signers for the loans. We have all been blessed,” said the native of DeSoto, Texas. “You never know who is watching. If he didn’t see the potential in us, I doubt he would have considered giving that to us.”
After earning his master’s degree, Jordan, 22, plans to find ways to make kinesthetic learning more acceptable in a traditional classroom setting specifically for at-risk students. It is just one way he hopes to pass his good fortune on to others.
“I want to pass that on to someone not just financially but by being supportive of youth and younger students,” he said. “It is less about us personally and more so about the tradition and culture at Morehouse.”
The impact Morehouse can make on your life is hard to understand unless you are a part of it, Jordan said. “I am grateful that I was part of this class, and I am feeling blessed that someone would consider doing this for me and 395 other students,” he said.