Paul “PJ” Pinkett donned his black mortarboard and kente fabric stole for Morehouse College’s 135th commencement exercises with a sense of accomplishment but also a heavy burden.
The Wilmington resident carried with him a whopping $96,000 in student loan debt. Many of the loans had interest rates ranging from 9.75 percent to 11.75 percent. Pinkett, a graduate of the Cinema, Television, and Emerging Media Studies Program, had every intention of paying off all the loans with interest. He just assumed he would be old and gray by the time he was finally done paying for his time at the 'House, as it’s called.
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But then on Saturday, he and his classmates got the life-changing news that tech billionaire Robert F. Smith would pay off the student loans for the entire class. Just like that, Pinkett’s whole life opened up.
“For me to have that burden lifted was incredible,” Pinkett, 21, told me.
That’s an understatement. His mother, Tracy, a middle school math teacher, and his father, Ron Sr., a chief financial officer for a community service organization in Delaware, had planned on helping him while also preparing for retirement.
“My husband and I had been discussing how we might be able to help Paul pay back his loans so he would not be stuck paying back loans until he’s 40 years old,” said Tracy Pinkett. “It changes the world for these young men.”
Think about it. Members of the class, who reportedly have on average $40,000 in student loan debt, now will be able to explore all the world has to offer with zero concerns about college loan repayment plans.
These Morehouse Men, as they’re called, won’t have to accept any old job to meet their monthly student loan obligations. Because of Smith’s generosity, they will be in a better position to start their own businesses or attend graduate school.
They won’t have to second guess having majored in something that’s not a high-demand field.
They won’t have to delay home ownership and starting families.
Because of Smith’s generous offer, they are free to pursue social activism, teaching, and other low-pay but high-impact fields without being burdened with college debt.
It’s a glorious step toward leveling the playing field for a historically disadvantaged group.
It will only enhance what’s known as the Morehouse Mystique, the aura that comes from having matriculated at such a historic school that produced the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. among other luminaries.
I can’t think of a better graduation present.
“The gift means a lot, but what it represents means even more,” said Khalif Ali, a 2019 cum laude computer science major from West Philly. “I encourage everyone to go and rewatch the speech and continue to pay it forward with real intention like Mr. Smith requested.”
It was an extremely moving commencement speech because it interwove the struggle of African American people with Smith’s own story as he urged each grad to help make America better.
"No matter what profession you choose, each of you must become a community builder,” said the founder and CEO of Vista Equity Partners. “True wealth comes from contributing to the liberation of people.”
He called on Morehouse grads to follow the example he had set by pledging to pay off all of their student loans.
"Let’s make sure every class has the same opportunity going forward — because we are enough to take care of our own community,” Smith said. “We are enough to ensure that we have all of the opportunities of the American dream. And we will show it to each other through our actions and through our words and through our deeds.”