Graduating class stunned when billionaire commencement speaker dropped a huge surprise

The commencement speaker for this graduating class did more than just deliver a speech – he dropped a huge surprise that would change the lives of nearly 400 students.

On Sunday, Morehouse College seniors got the surprise of their lives when billionaire investor, Robert F. Smith, declared that he will pay off all their student loans, which is estimated to be up to $40 million.

Jolanda Flubacher | flickr

Though college officials can’t provide the exact figure owed by the whole graduating class, the vice president of enrollment management, Terrance L. Dixon, says that students graduate with an average debt of $30,000 to $40,000.

According to Forbes, Robert is the richest African-American in the United States. With a net worth of $5 billion, he currently ranks #355 in the Forbes Billionaires List.

Robert began his career as a chemical engineer for Goodyear and Kraft. He attended business school at Columbia University and worked for Goldman Sachs before he founded the investment firm Vista Equity Partners, which he is also the CEO of.


Robert, who received an honorary doctorate from the college during the ceremony, made the big announcement during his commencement speech, saying:

“On behalf of the eight generations of my family who have been in this country, we’re going to put a little fuel in your bus. This is my class, 2019. And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans.”

The declaration was met with stunned looks from the students and even the faculty. Then the loud cheers came when everyone realized that it was actually happening!

Chants of “MVP!” were heard from the 396 all-male students who were understandably overjoyed with the billionaire’s promise.

“Now, I know my class will make sure they pay this forward. I want my class to look at these (alumni) — these beautiful Morehouse brothers — and let’s make sure every class has the same opportunity going forward because we are enough to take care of our own community. We are enough to ensure we have all the opportunities of the American dream,” Robert added.

Ecstatic graduating class.

A firm believer in paying it forward, this is not the first time that the wealthy investor has performed philanthropic efforts. Before his big announcement for the graduating class, he already donated $1.5 million to Morehouse College for the development of a new park and scholarships.

In 2016, he pledged $50 million to Cornell University to support its chemical and biomolecular engineering school, as well as black and female engineering students.

In 2017, he signed the Giving Pledge, an effort led by billionaires Warren Buffet and Bill and Melinda Gates to convince wealthy Americans to donate half of their net worth to worthwhile causes. In Robert’s case, he chose to allocate his finances to causes that promote equality for black Americans and the environment.

Jubilant graduating class.

Bo Emerson/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP |

Weeks before graduating, 22-year-old finance major Aaron Mitchom drew a spreadsheet to compute for how long it would take him to pay back his students loans that totaled $200,000. Per his calculations, it would take him 25 years at half his monthly salary.

But with Robert’s promise, that huge weight was taken off his and his family’s shoulders.

In an interview after the commencement, he said:

“I can delete that spreadsheet. I don’t have to live off of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I was shocked. My heart dropped. We all cried. In the moment it was like a burden had been taken off.”

His mother, Tina, was also shocked. Eight of their family members, including Aaron’s 76-year-old grandmother, took turns over four years co-signing on the loans so Aaron could finish his studies.

“It takes a village. 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,” Tina said.

Check out the video below to witness Robert’s life chgraudatianging announcement.

For sure, Aaron’s life is just one of the many that were changed with Robert’s generous act. And we hope, just like what he said, that the students pay it forward – which is the most important lesson that they could learn from this once in a lifetime gift.