Earlier this month, the billionaire investor Robert Smith stunned many when he offered to pay off the student loans of the 2019 graduating class at the historically black Morehouse College. The average student debt is now $32,000. Nationwide, 44 million people owe nearly $1.5 trillion. Student debt is expected to increase to $2 trillion by 2022. We speak with Ben Jealous, former national president of the NAACP, and De’Jaun Davis-Correia, a 2019 Morehouse graduate who will benefit from Smith’s donation.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, as graduation season continues across the country, we turn now to look at the student debt crisis. The average student debt is now $32,000. Nationwide, 44 million people owe nearly $1.5 trillion. Student debt is expected to increase to $2 trillion by 2022. Earlier this month, the billionaire investor Robert Smith stunned many when he offered to pay off the student loans of the 2019 graduating class at the historically black Morehouse College.
ROBERT SMITH: 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. Now, I’ve got the alumni over there, and this is a challenge to you alumni. This is my class, 2019. And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert F. Smith is the founder of investment firm Vista Equity Partners, the richest black man in America.
We’re joined now by two guests. De’Jaun Davis-Correia is one of the graduating seniors at Morehouse College, Dr. Martin Luther King’s alma mater. And we’re joined in San Francisco by Ben Jealous, former head of the NAACP, who ran for the governor of Maryland last year. He’s known De’Jaun since he was 3 years old, and encouraged him to attend Morehouse.
De’Jaun, congratulations on your graduation, your tremendous accomplishments. Can you talk about your reaction as you were listening to yet another standard graduation address, this one by an alum, Robert Smith, when he shocked everyone, apparently including the president of Morehouse, by announcing he was going to pay off the college debt of all of you, almost 400 students?
DE’JAUN DAVIS-CORREIA: I was very surprised, very, I would say—it was just mind-blowing, what he was able—you know, what he said that he was going to do. You know, I’m very appreciative for it, but looking forward to seeing those accounts be zero real soon.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ben Jealous, you may not—you were not completely surprised about the announcement. Could you talk about your connection to Smith? You were texting with him that day?
BEN JEALOUS: All of us were actually very surprised. He’s a friend. He had been a supporter of my campaign. And we’re both—you know, we’re both big supporters of the college. I had been on the board for several years. And so, when I got the news, I shot him a text right away. And we both really, frankly, look forward to what this class does. We both are of the conviction that this class will pay this forward several times over.
AMY GOODMAN: De’Jaun Davis-Correia, what does this actually mean for you? What were your plans before he made this announcement, and does this change what you’re able to do afterwards?
DE’JAUN DAVIS-CORREIA: For me, this means a lot. I’m not going to take anything from that, from the moment, from what he said, especially going forward, not having to worry about having to pay for a large bill of such a student loan, which can open up many more possibilities, whether it’s just a peace of mind, business opportunities, just having extra money in your pocket as time goes on. But for me, personally, alongside Ben, his help—and there’s other mentors that I’ve had throughout my years—I’ve actually been putting myself into a nice predicament, to where even—not trying to sound rude, but if this situation didn’t happen, I was on—you know, I had my best foot forward, because, actually, right now I am a working engineer. I started working back in January. So, you know, I definitely put my best foot forward. But this right here will definitely give me a even more boost than I initially thought I would have coming out of college.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ben Jealous, could you talk about De’Jaun, how your relationship developed, how you first met him?
BEN JEALOUS: You know, Jeez, when he was 3 years old, we met at a conference with his mom. His mom’s brother is Troy Davis, the Georgia death row inmate who was put to death despite the fact he had not committed the crime, about eight years ago. And when I was on death row with Troy, Troy looked at me, and he said—this is probably three months before Georgia put them to death—you know, “If they kill me, you’re responsible for him now.” And I said, “OK.” I said, “What does that mean?” He said, “Well, you’ve known him since he was 3. You’ve got to make sure he gets through college and on to a career.” And I gave him my commitment right then and there, not knowing how I could afford to do that.
And then a funny thing happened. About a month after he was executed, I received a prize. Somebody had put my name in for this leadership prize. And it came with a sum. And I took most of that sum, and I put it right into making sure that he got through college.
Now, we had been talking about what college to go to for some time. And he had said that he was not going to go to Morehouse. He had a different school in mind. But when he thought about it—in fact, actually, I mean, if we’re honest, at a rally trying to save his uncle, where the Morehouse students were there, he told them he was not going to go to Morehouse. And then he went to Morehouse. And I think it’s one of the best decisions that he ever made. What do you think?
AMY GOODMAN: De’Jaun, I want to go back to you in 2011, right? This is like eight years ago. During Democracy Now!’s special broadcast from the prison grounds in Jackson, Georgia—
DE’JAUN DAVIS-CORREIA: Oh, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —where your uncle Troy—where his execution was scheduled and was carried out that night, we got a chance to speak to you. This is part of what you said that night before your uncle’s execution, when I asked him what your uncle Troy taught you.
DE’JAUN DAVIS-CORREIA: Respect, as most importantly, dignity, honor, and just how to recognize injustice, how to recognize fairness, and how to recognize peace all over the world. And, you know, he always told me to keep my head in my books and just to educate myself. And by him telling me that, I’ve educated myself to learn when someone’s being treated wrong and when someone’s human or civil rights are being violated. And since I know those things, it’s my right as a human being to stand up and fight against those things, until those things are brought to justice.
AMY GOODMAN: So, De’Jaun, that’s you in 2011. Your thoughts? And, I mean, Ben, you put out this amazing tweet as De’Jaun was graduating from Morehouse, where you talked about his just remarkable accomplishments. His uncle—making it through your uncle’s execution, and then, a few weeks later, your mother, who I met you with numerous times, Martina Correia, honored as a leading light with Nancy Pelosi in Washington as she fought for breast cancer awareness among black women in Savannah, Georgia, she herself died of breast cancer. Ben tweeted, “Congrats Dejuan! Junior year HS grandma died. You mourned & kept studying. Senior year HS Uncle Troy was executed despite his innocence. You went back to work wiring jets. That same year your mom died: cancer. You graduated on time. Today: You’re a #MorehouseGrad2019! Celebrate!” Your thoughts, De’Jaun, how you made it through, what you say to other young people?
DE’JAUN DAVIS-CORREIA: I’ve always kind of found myself to be defined as resilient, because going through a lot of the things that I’ve been going through from a young age, yes, they have been very traumatizing. But, you know, you don’t get far without, one, faith and, two, a strong foundation. And I always preach that. And Ben has been there from every step of the way, even to even more steps in the future, because the work isn’t done. This is only the beginning, and this is a step forward. But just going through those things as I was coming up as a young person, I had a pretty good grasp on life as a whole, just from the way my mother raised me to be acceptable to, you know, good and bad, just know how to roll with the punches. It’s definitely easier said than done. But with the right mindset, with the right people around you, you can, too, be just as, you know, I will say, successful as I am or on the track that I’m going, even more successful than I am. I just feel like I have just taken advantage of the people around me and definitely have kept my head held high. And I’ve had a goal. And, you know, like Ben said, Troy challenged him. My mother challenged me on the night that she passed away. And so, for me, she knew how competitive I was. And when she challenged me, I couldn’t back down. I accepted it. I knew it was going to be a long journey ahead, but I stayed focused.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ben, we have less than 30 seconds, but the whole issue of student debt in these presidential—the upcoming presidential race, several candidates—Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren—are developing plans around college education. Your thoughts?
BEN JEALOUS: This is the biggest thing that’s holding back our economy right now. We are a great nation because so many people have risked everything they had to create great businesses. But what’s made that possible again and again has been our public universities and the fact that they were free for most of our history. Out here in the Silicon Valley, people talk about Stanford, but it’s also about Berkeley. And it’s also about City University of New York, and it’s also about—
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, but we’re going to do Part 2, and we’re going to put it online at democracynow.org. Ben Jealous and De’Jaun Davis-Correia, thank you.