Most graduates are gifted with balloons and bouquets along with their sheepskin, but Pleasanton native Jonathan Epps was surprised last month when billionaire businessman Robert Smith promised to pay off all student debt for Epps and his fellow classmates at historically black Morehouse College in Atlanta.
"It was honestly a pretty surreal moment," Epps told the Weekly about Smith's announcement at the commencement ceremony in late May.
As valedictorian of his class at Morehouse, Epps -- who also attended Walnut Grove Elementary and Harvest Park Middle schools before graduating in 2015 from Amador Valley High School -- was on stage when Smith delivered the news that stunned everyone into silence and captured headlines worldwide.
"I don't think it sunk in with a lot of my friends and classmates either," he said. "If you go back and look at the video clip you're like, 'Wow, shouldn't they be cheering,' because we just couldn't believe what we're hearing."
Smith amassed his fortune as the CEO of a private equity firm to become currently the wealthiest African-American person in the country, according to Forbes. His commitment to cover the estimated $40 million in college loans is a rare gesture that has triggered extensive discussion since about student loan debt disparity between black and white college students.
According to a Brookings Institution study, "black college graduates owe $7,400 more on average than their white peers," and that amount eventually more than triples to about $25,000. Epps said he's fortunate to come from a more privileged upbringing than many of his Morehouse peers.
"A lot of people I went to school with didn't have the same opportunities growing up, and it really made a tremendous difference," Epps said. "Robert Smith's gift that day really hammered that home for me because I realize I didn't have a choice of growing up in Pleasanton. That was up to my parents; it could've been anywhere else."
Epps, who earned a bachelor's degree in political science and plans to spend next year in Brazil on a Fulbright scholarship, said he never got the chance to thank Smith in person, but "while I was getting my degree, he whispered a few things in my ear."
"He just told me how proud he was," he said. "To take those five to 10 seconds to whisper words of encouragement in my ear meant a lot."