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Billionaire Robert F. Smith Paid Off Her Son’s Morehouse Loans, Makes Mom More Committed To Finishing PhD

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Jun. 7 2019, Published 7:44 a.m. ET

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Athena Cross is a doctoral student and the mother of Cameron Edge, a recent Morehouse graduate. She was in attendance as her son, and hundreds of other graduating students,  listened to the the commencement speaker, Robert F. Smith. They were all unaware of the soon-to-be generous gesture Mr. Smith prepared to announce.  

“A little fuel in your bus.” That is how billionaire Robert F. Smith described his pledge to pay the student debt of the entire Morehouse class of 2019. His metaphor does not measure the weight of his action. Ironically, the metaphor does represent a gesture intended to close the generational wealth gap of young men looking to embark on a future of endless possibilities. There is no doubt that Smith’s donation will greatly impact Cross’s son. The experience has yet to sink in for her. 

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“The whole thing is incredibly surreal. It has not registered. Talking to friends and family it is still difficult to process. I am grateful for  a huge burden that has been lifted. This gives Cameron the opportunity to have a fighting chance. Education is important and it gives him a fighting change. He gets to go to the next chapter of life without the restrictions of the burden of debt. He gets to follow his dreams and not [be forced to] do what he has to do so he can pay back Sallie Mae. He gets to give back to the community without worrying about paying off debt.”

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Cross equates Smith’s donation to a stone being tossed into a body of water, causing a ripple of waves. There is no doubt that a ripple of change has been created by the generous grant promised by Mr. Smith. Cross expresses her thoughts about the gesture with much enthusiasm.

“I was overjoyed by his speech. Mr. Smith stated we have to save ourselves. I think what Mr. Smith did was set the example. He inspired people to do something. Although you may not be able to do exactly what he did, he inspired people to volunteer, provide mentor opportunities and more.” 

As a PhD candidate and a mother of two, Cross understands the importance of education. When asked about her views on the value of education her answer could not have been more genuine.

Athena Cross with son at 2019 Morehouse graduation
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“Opportunities such as undergraduate and graduate school mean exposure to information.[Going to school] allows you to have a unique perspective, it opened doors and got me into rooms. Education has been the gateway and pathway for me to provide a home [for my family] and access to resources.” 

For young people who are determined to finish a collegiate degree she gives sound advice. “Sometimes it is hard and sometimes it takes a long time. Information and exposure to information are so valuable. It will help you re-frame your thoughts about yourself and your work.” Cross made a commitment to herself to pursue her education, which now includes a doctoral program in public health. She considers her doctoral degree a gift to herself after waiting a decade.

“With both children in college I was an empty nester. This opportunity granted me the time to pursue something that I always wanted, to pursue my doctorate. As a woman of color I feel like I have to go over and above to be successful. It is very difficult to break through into senior level positions in non-profit organizations. It is not an area we have mentors in. It is not an area people reach back and give back in. It gives me the opportunity to use my energy and resources and make change in communities for people that look like me.”

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