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$34M gift to Morehouse graduates finally bearing fruit

Billionaire philanthropist Robert Smith promised last spring to pay off all of the college debt of the Morehouse graduating class of 2019.

ATLANTA — David Thomas, president of Morehouse College, said on Friday, that the philanthropic gift of $34 million announced at last spring's graduation by billionaire investor Robert Smith is finally seeing fruit.

During his speech to the class of 2019, Smith announced that he would be paying off the student loan debt of the members of the graduation class of Morehouse men, which brought a joyful standing ovation and a tearful surprise to the families of the graduating seniors in attendance.

On Friday, recent Morehouse graduate Trey Wilson said he still finds himself watching clips of graduation online.

"Just last week when I was here at work, I was watching the video," Wilson said. "I was like, 'Man, that was 3 months ago', it is still so unreal."

Wilson said his class will be inspired by Smith for years and take pride in being part of the class of 2019.

"The Robert Smith Scholars, that is what we are called. We call ourselves that, crowned ourselves that name," Wilson said with a smile.

The university said students are now receiving paperwork to sign and have their debt cleared. Wilson received his letter in an e-mail this morning.

He said when he signs his paperwork, he believes he is also making an unofficial promise to give back to future Morehouse classes.

"When much is given, much is required, he said. " For us being paid this debt I think it is important for us to continue moving forward. Alright 40 million (dollars), let's make that 80 million."

In addition, Smith's gift created a challenge both to the new graduates as well as to Morehouse alumni -- to become more philanthropic within the bounds of their own lives, and to pay the gifts forward in helping others around them.

RELATED: Commencement speaker tells Morehouse graduating class he'll pay off their student loan debt

On Friday, Thomas said that he was proud to also announce the Student Success program, which is meant to provide an avenue for those who do not have the type of largess that Smith has but want to participate in some form of donation to the college.

He said he was very proud to have been present in May as Smith surprised the graduates and is looking forward to watching the progress of the graduates from the Class of 2019 over the next 10 to 20 years, not only as they move forward in life, but watching as their lives provide an opportunity to determine what happens when an individual's fiscal burdens are lifted early on.

"This is a liberation give," Thomas said. "This allows our students to pursue their dreams as soon as they would like to and in whatever fields they would like to."

RELATED: Billionaire who promised to pay off Morehouse grads' loan debt helping minorities get STEM internships

What sorts of goals are they able to set without the looming specter of a financial monster hanging overhead. What kind of future can they help create for our world when unencumbered by worrying about extra debt. What type of philanthropic gifts can these men create that can help others around them when they have the opportunity?

Thomas pointed out that while his speech in May said that he would alleviate the debt of each of the graduates, what many people do not realize is that the families of those graduates take on debt in the form of Parent Plus loans that are, in most cases, far more burdensome than what the students themselves shoulder. Smith is alleviating those debts, also.

RELATED: Who is Robert Smith, Morehouse commencement speaker who promised to pay off student loans?

However, no disbursements are being paid directly to any single student or any single family member. Rather, the college, working together with the Department of Education and loan servicing organizations, are determining exactly what the student debt is for each graduate, whether that is based upon an individual student's debt or based on a parent's loans, and the debt itself is being eliminated by Smith's gift.  

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