Billionaire investor Robert F. Smith, who received an honorary doctorate at Morehouse College‘s commencement ceremony on Sunday, dropped the surprise of a lifetime during his early morning address.
Smith, who already gifted the historically Black college a $1.5 million endowment, stunned the crowd of nearly 400 graduates and their families after pledging to eliminate the burden of student loan debt for the entire class of 2019 — a nearly $40 million donation.
“On behalf of the eight generations of my family who have been in this country, we’re gonna put a little fuel in your bus,” Smith told the crowd before making the surprise announcement.
“This is my class, 2019,” he added. “And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans.”
It took a second for students to realize what happened, but it wasn’t long before the entire stadium was up on their feet, laughing, celebrating and embracing one another. Others, including some members of Smith’s staff, were in complete disbelief and couldn’t help but let their jaws hang open.
“I feel like it’s Mother’s Day all over again,” Tonga Releford, whose son Charles Releford III was among Sunday’s class of graduates, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Releford said her son amassed an estimated $70,000 in student loans.
Tonga and her husband, Charles Releford Jr., also have a younger son who’s a junior at the all-male, private school in Atlanta, It’s unclear who next year’s commencement speaker will be, but Charles Jr. is hoping for a repeat performance by Smith.
“Maybe he’ll come back next year,” he told the newspaper.
The average cost of tuition at the Atlanta HBCU is over $48,000 per year .
According to a spokeswoman for the university, Smith’s gift is the single largest donation in Morehouse College history. The tech investor, whose private equity firm, Vista Equity Partners, is valued at nearly $5 billion, continued his legacy of service earlier this year when he pledged a $1.5 million gift to fund scholarships, as well as a park that will serve as a new outdoor study area for local students.
During his graduation address, the philanthropist and CEO said that being on the bus to success means nothing if you fail to help others along the way.
“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,” said Smith. ““I’m putting some fuel into your bus, [and] I’m counting on you to load up that bus.”
Dwytt Lewis, who graduated from Morehouse on Sunday with a degree in business administration, said he plans to do just that.
“It’s just an overwhelming feeling, in a good way,” Lewis, 21, told CBS News over the weekend. “I’m so motivated to go change the world.”
The formerly homeless Compton, California, native was among those who shimmied and danced across the stage after learning his student debt — an estimated $150,000 — had been wiped clean. Thanks to Smith’s act of generosity, Lewis said he’s inspired to pay it forward.
“There is room for you in this world,” the recent grad said. “You can do what you want to do. You can follow your dreams. And I think that’s where it starts. I think once you have that mindset of, ‘I want to be impactful and I want to change the world,’ I promise you that energy just transpires.”
Watch more in the video below.