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The Wind is at My Back

As a Morehouse College alumnus, I have been intrigued by the varied reactions to Robert Smith’s multi-million-dollar pledge to wipe clean the student loan debt of the College’s class of ’19.

Some people are speechless and heartened by this act. Others have a lot to say about what more could and should be done to address the cost of higher education in general. Both reactions are certainly worthy of attention.

I couldn’t be prouder of my alma mater for inspiring Mr. Smith to invest in 396 scholar-leaders. I am also proud of the plans that I am sure many of these most recent Morehouse graduates were already making—plans to put their money, no matter the amount, into people, places, and things that bring our communities one step closer to self-sufficiency. The $48,000 price tag of a Morehouse education takes on a different connotation when one graduates from the collegewith no student loan debt.

Norm JonesNorm Jones

On Sunday, 396 men of color graduated from Morehouse College more economically enfranchised than the average college-going American. Do we understand what that means in the context of race and class? It means we must not let go of this moment. It means we must stand staunchly on platforms that force the conversations about HBCUs (and higher education more broadly) to shift. Mr. Smith has positioned these young scholar-leaders to take what Morehouse aspires to teach every student—to “lead lives of leadership and service” and actualize these precepts in tangible ways.

There are foundations to launch, more debt to eliminate, book scholarships to name, 529 plans to establish, savings accounts to open, and 401K plans to set in motion. This pledge is not about debt. This pledge is about positioning. It asserts the question: what will you do with the gifts you’ve been given?

I realize debt elimination and ‘cash-on-hand’ are two different things, but not having college student loan debt has no doubt shifted what many in the graduating class may have been grappling with. I’m sure many had been thinking about how to support family, wondering what their first job may be, weighing the option of taking out loans to go to graduate school or deferring for a year and working, prioritizing a committed relationship and financially investing in a long-term future … all these life choices make giving (and certainly alumni giving) a low priority for most.

I graduated from Morehouse in 1996, and I can recall getting my first student-loan bill from Sallie Mae. Not only did the full balance overwhelm me, but so did the single monthly payment. I grew up in a house that asked where, not if, I was going to college. But even as a third-generation college graduate, there were no household conversations about giving to one’s alma mater—in fact, beyond church, there were very few conversations about giving in general.

Philanthropy was something I associated with the wealthy; the elite. By the time I graduated at age 21, I still hadn’t embraced the idea of giving back to my alma mater. That big number on the loan bill felt like confirmation that financial giving was not within the realm of possibilities. How and why in the world would I give money to Sallie Mae and to Morehouse?

I knew I wanted to “pay it forward,” but I thought that ‘real’ financial gifts could only be bestowed in amounts that impress. I carried this mindset into my early adult life, into my promotions and raises, and into my ways of prioritizing what matters in life. It has only been within the last few years that I’ve shifted my thinking about philanthropy in a significant way.

Most profoundly, I’ve realized that I’ve always been positioned to give something that will impact a world larger than my own. Alumni giving at many historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) has been in peril for decades. Morehouse is not an exception. This gift makes giving seem possible and meaningful. It inspires even those who give to do so out of a shared sense of obligation to one another.

More than the amount of the gift, I wish to pay homage to Mr. Smith’s impact on my thinking. I’m thinking about my ability and capacity to effectuate change in the lives of others. I graduated from college in 1996 and yet I feel quite connected to the class of 2019. They are rendered more vivid in my mind because I think of them not only as fellow Morehouse graduates but also as future, fellow philanthropists.

Because of Robert Smith’s life-altering gift, I’ve been thinking about what else young scholar-leaders need. There is nothing I want more than to make sure students are financially literate. I want to teach them principles of stewardship. I want to cultivate within them, the art and science of asking wealthy people for money without hesitation or reservation. Economies are built on these behaviors. Whether they know it or not, these Morehouse graduates are now at the table .

I am confident that there are now 396 more opportunities to advance the conversation about Black and Brown men in America. Who are we? What is our value? What power do we hold and what do we do with that power? Who and what is impacted by the decisions we make today?

Hopefully, the wind is at our backs. This gesture should have raised the standard for every person with the compulsion to make a positive difference for someone else. We can all do better—better for our communities and better for ourselves. Those who choose to find fault in Mr. Smith’s methodologies have a right to their perspectives.

I, for one, am inspired. His donation reminds me that, while we may live in a world that dehumanizes people based on levels of melanin, we can still rise above and beyond such odiousness to do the work of legacy-building. This gift to Morehouse has sparked conversations all over the country; what we do with our conversations has the power to transform lives. Data is emerging that show that Millennials have lower earning capacities than the members of previous generations. With less accumulated wealth at the same age, their path to upward mobility is diminished. However, the trajectory of the most recent graduates of Morehouse has not been compromised in this way, in fact their trajectory has been accelerated.

News coverage abounds of Morehouse graduates rethinking choices about graduate work and professional pathways. Imagine the experience of the graduate who, at one point in his life, had been homeless, and (as he put it) ‘in the last 30 seconds’ as an undergraduate, he had his college debt eliminated. His intention is to ‘change the world.’ Few people with that worldview have life-changing moments that give them a concrete sense of how that aspiration might be actualized. Student loan debt valued at 1.5 trillion dollars certainly calls for more Robert Smith(s), not just the billionaire but the servant.

I recognize that this large gift impacts a small population and perhaps engenders more questions than answers. We are right to ask more questions. Perhaps curiosity is the most helpful response to this moment. I am sitting with a kind of restlessness as I continue to ask myself, “what more can I do?”

Norm Jones is the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Amherst College.

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