Elijah Dormeus was sitting Sunday among the throngs of graduating students at Morehouse College in Atlanta, trying to focus on the commencement speaker, but mostly basking in the glow of finishing four years of college.
Then the speaker, billionaire Robert Smith, told the graduates he and his family will be taking care of their student loans. Just like that, Dormeus’ $100,000 in student loans vanished.
Dormeus dropped his head into his heads, cried briefly, then jumped up and whooped and yelled with the others.
“It was surreal,” said Dormeus, 22, a business administration major. “I was so ecstatic. I just jumped up and started yelling, ‘Yes, Robert! Speak!'”
Smith’s stunning, unplanned announcement Sunday that he would be paying off the student loans of all of the nearly 400 graduating Morehouse students ripped through the nation, lighting up social media and creating a legion of grateful parents and alumni.
“We’re going to put a little fuel in your bus,” Smith told the students before telling them his family would make a grant to pay off their loans.
Director Spike Lee, a Morehouse graduate, posted a video to Instagram thanking Smith.
“Robert Smith, the wealthiest African American in the United States of America: Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Lee said, before singing a few bars of the college hymn, “Dear Old Morehouse.”
Morehouse College President David A. Thomas said he hopes Smith’s grant, estimated at up to $40 million, spurs other wealthy donors to support historically black colleges and universities, known as HBCUs, such as Morehouse.
“If we look at how many HBCUs, for example, are struggling, I think you could make a case that our community, those of us with means, have not prioritized supporting them because many of them should not be struggling the way that they’re struggling,” Thomas told SiriusXM Host Joe Madison.
After Smith’s announcement, the students in the crowd cheered, hugged and launched into a chant of “MVP! MVP!”
Perhaps few in the crowd were as stunned and happy as Dormeus. One of nine children from Harlem, New York, Dormeus said he was raised by a single mother after his father died when he was seven years old.
They struggled to make ends meet but never felt like they were missing any thing, he said. “We never knew we were lacking,” he said. “Our mom always told us, ‘You can do anything you put your mind to.'”
Getting into Morehouse was great but also a financial struggle, Dormeus said. Each year, he took out loans to get him through the semester, got small grants and scholarships where he could, and took on a job in the sales department of AT&T.
By graduation, he had amassed $100,000 in loans. He said he planned to keep working full-time at AT&T and dedicate a chunk of his salary to paying off his loans.
Now, he hopes to save money and help pay college costs for his younger brother, Jeremiah, a junior in high school in New York who also hopes to attend Morehouse. His long-term dream: Build a financial foundation that helps people in his community get out of debt and into college.
“I want to pay it back in ways we haven’t yet seen,” Dormeus said. “Robert Smith has done that. He’s set the tone.”
After the commencement ceremony, Dormeus filed out with the other students and headed back to his dorm. There, he sat and let the tears roll again.
The gospel song, God Has Smiled On Me, played endlessly in his head, as if caught in a loop.
God has smiled on me
He has set me free, oh God has smiled on me He’s been good to me, oh.
“I was struggling for four years straight,” Dormeous said. “Now look at it. God has smiled on me.”
Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: One Morehouse College student’s $100,000 in debt, vanished. ‘God has smiled on me,’ he says after billionaire Robert F. Smith’s speech