Bryan Armstead Jr. was sitting with his graduating class at Morehouse College in Atlanta on Sunday when he heard the commencement speaker, Robert F. Smith, say that he’s paying off all their student debt.
It took some time for the news to sink in.
“I started to clap but I had a blank stare on my face because I couldn’t believe he said that,” the 23-year-old graduate, who majored in Spanish, tells PEOPLE. “I was at a loss for words. I’m still in shock.”
Then Armstead Jr. realized that his $80,000 in student loans would no longer a burden he needed to carry.
“It shows so much empathy because he thought of being in our shoes and how helpful it is to have financial freedom,” says the Atlanta, Georgia, native.
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Smith, who is the founder, chairman and CEO of private equity firm Vista Equity Partners, said that he and his family are creating a grant to pay off their debt, which is estimated to be $40 million.
Forbes reports that Smith is the 355th richest man in the world, with an estimated net worth of $5 billion.
“On behalf of the eight generations of my family who have been in this country, we’re going to put a little fuel in your bus,” Smith, 56, said at the end of his speech. “This is my class and I know my class will pay this forward.”
Armstead Jr. says that their class will indeed pay it forward.
“It’s a trickle-down effect in two different ways. We’re able to touch the lives of so many because we’re not in a position of starting from being in debt,” he said. “Since we saw someone do this, it lets us know we can do that as well. He gave us hope.”
On Sunday, Smith, who received an honorary Morehouse College doctorate during the commencement, wrote on Instagram that “where you live shouldn’t determine whether you get educated.”
“Where you go to school shouldn’t determine whether you get textbooks,” he added. “The opportunity you access should be determined by the fierceness of your intellect, the courage in your creativity and the grit that allows you to overcome expectations that weren’t set high enough.”
Now Armstead Jr. tells PEOPLE, “I couldn’t be happier than I am right now.”
- Additional reporting by MORGAN EVANS
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