It isn’t every day that Leslie Odom Jr. gets upstaged — especially from 700 miles away.
The “Hamilton” star came back to Pittsburgh on Sunday to give the commencement address at his alma mater, Carnegie Mellon University.
“I place my faith in the highest possible intentions in all things these days,” he told the graduates, including “speeches that I suspect will be forgotten.”
The CMU Class of 2019 has probably not forgotten the speech, but more than one probably wished they had been sitting in Atlanta instead of Pittsburgh.
The Morehouse College students who gathered for graduation there may have expected a typically boring-yet-inspirational speech that would leave them waiting for their chance to get their diplomas and throw their caps in the air.
But billionaire Robert Smith changed that in a heartbeat when he erased $40 million worth of student loan debt for the class.
His only string? “Pay it forward.” He wants his generosity to snowball, and future classes to leave Morehouse with the same financial freedom.
That is amazing and enviable and aspirational. Few of us will ever have the ability to affect the lives of more than 400 people with one action, but his request of the graduates is an invitation to us all to try.
There are lots of ways to pay it forward. We aren’t all billionaires helming companies that pour money into software and tech development.
But every one of us can find a way to expand our circle of influence to help someone else rise. Political, racial, religious and cultural divisions have too often made it easy for us to insulate ourselves. We don’t have the money, the time, the energy to do more.
That isn’t true, though. Every day we wake up and every interaction we have with another person is an opportunity to pay it forward.
We can volunteer. We can serve in political offices or on appointed boards or committees. We can attend community and school functions. All of those do what Odom sang about in “Hamilton.” They put us in the rooms where things happen. They bring us closer to our neighbors and make us realize the things that connect us instead of all those things that drive us apart.
Smith’s gift was an example not of how to give away $40 million. It was an example of exactly what Odom exhorted the Carnegie Mellon graduates to do — to live with intention.