The Ultimate Graduation Gift

By B. Daniel Simmons & Joshua Reed

When the ceremony began last Sunday, the collective sentiment of Morehouse College’s class of 2019 was to get past the pomp, then get on with their post-graduation lives. Then, their commencement speaker, Robert F. Smith, told the 396 Morehouse graduates they would leave their college without the burden of student debt.

Smith, founder of Vista Equity Partners, promised to pay off student debt for the entire class, which translates to roughly $40 million. It’s a life-changing gift that B. Daniel Simmons and Joshua Reed will never forget. They share their story of Sunday, and its impact on their lives. — Tim Turner, managing editor


Atlanta, Georgia

B. Daniel Simmons

Computer Science Major, Chinese Studies and Mathematics Double Minor (Summa Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa), from Atlanta, Georgia

To be truthful, I’m still in a state of disbelief about the events that occurred on Sunday. Right before the moment of his announcement, I was already riding a sort of high that came with the morning’s earlier events.

The conferring of degrees was next up on the program, and the moment I’d been waiting years for was inching its way into reality. The speech seemed pretty normal to me and my classmates. We knew little about Robert Smith, but we were curious to see what things he might have to say to us as we prepared to enter the next stage of our lives. He spent several minutes urging the class of 2019, and the greater black community, always to look forward and work toward a world where we can be financially independent, full of agency, and consistently involved with all the things we care about (among several other nuggets of advice to live by).

He dove into various stories from his past — about how he got to where he was and established the values that have made him feel whole as a person and continue his current path of success. Then, it happened. As casually as someone detailing what they ate for breakfast, he announced that he would eliminate the student loan debt of the 396 members in the graduating class of 2019. I definitely heard what he said correctly, but the weight of the announcement took a few seconds to fully hit.

It was clear many of my brothers — and the audience — felt the same.

“Did he really just say that?”

“He can’t be serious!”

“I love this song!”

These were just a few of the remarks and exclamations I heard from my brothers standing next to their white seats. At this point in time, the heat had really started to get to me and I wasn’t sure how to feel, but the atmosphere elevated to new heights and shouts of “MVP!” Whoops and hollers were heard all over Century Campus. My debt is nowhere near that of some of my brothers in this class, but it felt like a huge, invisible weight had been lifted. My mind immediately turned not only to what it meant for me, but also for this class, Morehouse, our historically black colleges and universities, and the black community as a whole.

His action touched me deeply, and I felt in that moment his love for his people and his investment in the future of education. The man had never attended Morehouse or had children go there, but in that moment he affirmed with his financial support how much he believed in what Morehouse was doing and its future. I had always joked about my concerns about the future of Morehouse and HBCU education to make myself feel better about the waves of HBCU closures across the nation. These events have caused concerns about how black people could sustainably uplift themselves through education and stand against the injustices we are still faced with.

My great-grandfather and namesake, Daniel C. Butler (Morehouse, class of 1930), used to pick tobacco during summers to pay his way through college. He later gave back to his community by establishing and leading the first black high school in Taylors, South Carolina. Now, I feel empowered and emboldened to commit headfirst into supporting my college and using every opportunity I see to uplift the people in my own communities through education. I will volunteer my services whenever and wherever possible. Smith’s statement stands strong in the face of a debt crisis which disproportionately affects black students attending HBCUs.

I’ll join Microsoft as a software engineer in just a week or so, and will be in the perfect place to focus on bridging the gap between bright black students and one of the largest and fastest-growing industries in the country. I’m indebted to Morehouse, Robert F. Smith, and the sacrifices of my family who came before me. The onus is on me and the class of 2019 to pay it forward and commit ourselves to our communities in whatever way we can.


Joshua Reed

Bachelor’s Degree in Cinema, Television, and Emerging Media Studies, from Alexandria, Virginia.

The sun was beating down on our heads. I was sweating through my cap and gown. And I was dozing off. Saturday had been a full day. Graduation practice, the Morehouse Alumni Association rite of passage, the baccalaureate service. We had to wake up at 5 that morning to line up in the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel to prepare for the march up Brown Street to our seats in front of Graves Hall. Most of us were sleep-deprived.

So, when Robert F. Smith announced that he would pay all of our student loans, the reaction was not immediate. The crowd hesitated for a few seconds. “Did he really just say that? All our student debt … gone?” The cheers from the crowd started out small but swelled into a crescendo. Me and my peers chanted, “MVP! MVP! MVP!” His generosity felt truly unprecedented.

For me, this moment was unique. I had no student loans. Through an academic scholarship provided by Morehouse College, a scholarship awarded by my church, Alfred Street Baptist Church, and my parents, I was able to make it through college without any student loans. I am an anomaly in today’s age. Most HBCU students have some form of student loans. An April 2019 report in The Wall Street Journal noted that the median HBCU student had student debt at a rate 32 percent than students of other four-year institutions. At Morehouse, many of the students take out some loans of some form to finance their education. When I talked to my peers, many expressed trepidation about how they would pay off their loans after they graduated.

When Robert F. Smith announced that he would pay off the class of 2019’s student loan debt, I didn’t process at first just how monumental an act it was. (Like I said, I was sleep-deprived.) But once the pomp and circumstance of graduation dissipated, I sat and reflected on what he did and its impact.

Many of my classmates were loaded with debt, some burdened with as much as $200,000. All of them would have to focus on paying Sallie Mae back for years to come. In an instant, Robert F. Smith released 396 black men from the financial burden of student loan debt. He freed up their lives and careers. Now, my brothers can focus on starting new lives and establishing wealth for themselves, instead of worrying about their debt. These 396 students owed an estimated $40 million. The generosity of the grant should not overshadow the fact that there is a major problem with the cost of higher education. Education should be affordable to all, and I hope this sparks discussion on how to fix to problem of student loan debt.

Before he made the announcement, Smith said, “This is my class. And I know my class will pay it forward.” There is one other aspect of the donation that I want to highlight, which speaks to something more intangible. Morehouse’s mission “is to develop men with disciplined minds who will lead lives of leadership and service.” Smith’s charge to pay it forward speaks to that core tenet of Morehouse: paying it forward. Recognizing that your education, your career, and your money are not meant just for your own personal success, but also for the success of others. It is not enough to make it out by yourself; you have to lift others as you climb. I know that this donation will free my brothers to strive for their true passions and uplift the people who are around them.