As Oprah Winfrey ended her decades-old talk show this week, a grateful group of Morehouse College students and alumni paid homage to the Queen of Talk by paying it forward.
Recalling the academic leg up and second chance Oprah Winfrey’s full-ride scholarships gave them when they were striving and struggling students at the historically Black Atlanta institution, the “Sons of Oprah,” as they are known, announced this week that together they will pledge more than $300,000 of their own money to educate other deserving Morehouse men.
“We’re thrilled to be part of the historic moment, milestone in television history and Oprah’s life and in Morehouse College History,” Morehouse President Robert M. Franklin said in a television news interview after the “Surprise Oprah! A Farewell Spectacular” event on Tuesday. The show featured more than 100 Morehouse students and alumni scholarship recipients who flooded the stage and streamed down the aisles of Chicago’s United Center bearing white candles.
As Oprah’s devotees and pundits ponder “the Oprah Effect” and recount her public largess — the cars, international trips and even homes she gave away — few knew about the several hundred young men whose education was made possible by the Oprah Winfrey Scholarship at the all-male Morehouse. When she launched the scholarship fund in 1990, Winfrey pledged then to educate 100 men at the school.
Today the number of students served has swelled to 415. When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of Morehouse’s most well-known alumni, attended the college in 1948, tuition was $90. Today, the annual tuition is about $22,000.
When Shaka Ameen Amir Rasheed, a 1993 graduate, received his scholarship, he was a struggling sophomore, working two summer jobs and waging a creative but unsuccessful letter-writing campaign to try to pay his way through Morehouse. Then, nothing short of a “miracle” happened: he was chosen as one of the inaugural Oprah Scholars.
“To be honest, I cried,” said Rasheed, who is now an attorney in New York. “That’s when I knew I could achieve my goal without worrying about survival and paying bills. It changed my life and the possibilities. I keep thinking that $1,400 almost kept me from staying at Morehouse. I want other alumni to know that little gifts matter, and big gifts help; that we can help provide a life-changing experience in young men’s lives.”
Todd L. Campbell, a 1995 Morehouse grad, also said an Oprah scholarship spared him from a difficult decision. Without enough money to pay for classes, Campbell said that he had to decide whether to “go back home and attend a public college, or work extra jobs and stay at Morehouse.”
He wanted to stay at Morehouse, an institution where he said he found “an educational home” with other Black men with similar goals and big dreams.
“That scholarship energized me and recharged me,” Campbell said. “I knew it was an honor to get it. It took all of the financial pressure off and I didn’t want to let anybody down — especially my family and Oprah.”
He now wants to help pay Oprah’s generosity forward.
“I want people to understand that it’s not just about making it,” he said. “If we work to help others, it creates a ripple effect that helps all of us.”
Today, Rob Eskridge III, a former Oprah Scholar, is an Ohio assistant attorney general. But at Morehouse, paying tuition was a struggle, Eskridge said in a recent Columbus Dispatch interview. The $120,000 scholarship kept him in school.
“Ms. Winfrey’s act of generosity is the single most generous thing anyone has done for me in my life — other than my mother raising me by herself,” Eskridge said in the interview.
In his senior year, Oluwabusayo “Tope” Folarin, a 2004 graduate, had a grade point average of 4.0. He was only months from being named the college’s third Rhodes Scholar, which allowed him to pursue two master’s degrees at England’s Oxford University and eventually work in Google’s London office for two years.
At a gathering of Oprah Scholars just hours before the “Surprise Spectacular” show this week, Folarin said he was thankful that perseverance and philanthropy paid off.
“It’s about her tonight and her philanthropy,” Folarin said. “It is great for alumni to reconnect