This article originally appeared on The Philadelphia Tribune.
Even before billionaire tech executive and philanthropist Robert F. Smith announced during the commencement ceremony at Morehouse College that he was paying off the debt of every student in the 2019 graduating class, Ahmad Smith was just thrilled to have his family in Atlanta to share in the moment.
But the philanthropist’s announcement under the scorching Atlanta sun on Sunday gave Ahmad Smith and his family a sense of euphoria they never expected.
“I feel free; I have my life back,” said the 23-year-old Ahmad Smith, who has roots in Philadelphia but lives in Bel Air, Maryland. “Not only am I now an educated Morehouse man, I’m a debt-free Morehouse man.”
Ahmad Smith graduated with honors with a degree in kinesiology, but like many new graduates he’s still looking for that first job. Before Robert F. Smith’s philanthropic announcement, Ahmad Smith had approximately $110,000 in student loan debt.
“It’s something that was always in your head,” Ahmad Smith said in a phone interview Sunday. “It’s always there.”
Now, with that slate wiped clean, Ahmad Smith said he has something crucial that he did not have when he was under crushing debt — options.
“If something didn’t come through in the first six months before I was scheduled to begin repaying my loans I was going to have to take any job,” said Ahmad Smith, who hopes to one day work as a CEO at a hospital. “Now I can focus on what is best for my career. I can network and not feel the added pressure that comes with feeling like you have to get this job because of what is hanging over your head. It gives me the chance to focus on what is best for me and my future.”
He said that going to graduate school right after college “was out of the question” because of his debt.
Ahmad Smith’s father, Wayne Smith, 69, was born and raised in the Strawberry Mansion section of Philadelphia. He left the city a few decades ago.
Wayne Smith said his son had received scholarship offers from other schools but had his mind set on historically black Morehouse, which costs approximately $48,500 annually and did not offer any aid.
Before Ahmad Smith started at Morehouse, Wayne Smith vowed that he would help him pay back his student loans, which is one of the reasons why Wayne Smith said he has not retired from his job in construction management.
“It was a struggle, but I told him I would not let you down,” Wayne Smith said. “I’m not going to let you come out of school with all that debt and not help you. Now that this burden is removed, it’s time to sit back and ask, ‘What do I have planned for my future now?’”
Robert F. Smith is the founder of the investment firm Vista Equity Partners. According to Forbes Magazine, Smith’s net worth is estimated at $5 billion. He had previously announced a $1.5 million gift to Morehouse. His pledge to pay off the student loan debt for the class of 2019 is estimated to be $40 million.
“This is my class, 2019,” Robert F. Smith said as part of his pledge to pay off the debt. “And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans. I know my class will make sure they pay this forward. And let’s make sure every class has the same opportunity going forward because we are enough to take care of our own community.”
Ahmad Smith said that he knew a little about Robert F. Smith — “I knew that he was an African-American billionaire” — but that he didn’t know a whole lot more about him beyond that.
“It’s funny because we all knew [actress] Angela Bassett, who like Mr. Smith, was receiving an honorary doctorate degree,” Ahmad Smith joked.
And then he turned serious.
“It means everything that that this came from an African-American man,” he said. “You don’t see this every day. For him to be in a position to do that for me, to do that for my brothers and the class of 2019 is everything. It makes me want to work that much harder so that I can one day be in position to do the same thing for students in the future.”
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