This Raleigh man’s face captured the joy of the Morehouse College student loan payoff

Morehouse College graduating senior Caleb Barco knew that one of the speakers at his commencement on Sunday was investor and philanthropist Robert F. Smith.

“I knew he was a black billionaire, and there aren’t many,” said Barco, who grew up in Raleigh and attended Southeast Raleigh Magnet High School. “I said, ‘I’m going to listen to what he has to say. He’s doing something right to be one of the wealthiest people in our nation.’”

Caleb Barco, left, of Raleigh, reacts to Robert F. Smith’s announcement that the investor will pay off the loans of Morehouse College students at the school’s 2019 commencement. Steve Schaefer, Atlanta Journal-Constitution The Associated Press

So Barco was paying close attention when Smith announced — to the surprise of students, professors and college administrators — that Smith’s family would be making a grant to cover the student loans of the 400 or so members of Morehouse’s Class of 2019.

“I turned to the student beside me and we hugged,” Barco said. “I think we cried a little. I was just ecstatic.”

Barco’s shock and elation were captured by photographer Steve Schaefer of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, who was covering the commencement ceremony. The image was shared by news outlets all over the nation via the Associated Press.

Barco, in his full graduation garb, represented his class and a generation of hopeful but heavily indebted young adults with an open-mouth look of stunned joy.

Smith said he was making the gift as a challenge to other alumni, including the graduating class, to help ease the financial burden of those who come after them.

Morehouse is a small, private, historically black, liberal arts college for men in Atlanta. The cost of attending the school full-time is more than $45,000 a year, absent any grants or scholarships.

Barco was in the hospital recovering from a football injury in his senior year of high school when he got his acceptance letter from Morehouse, he said. He went into sticker shock.

“I was, like, ‘I can’t go here. It’s too much. No way I can go here.’”

But he had cousins who had attended there, and he visited the campus while in Atlanta for a high school debate and speaking event, he said, and “I fell in love with the place. It’s just a place where young African American men are held in high esteem and they’re really told they can do it.

“When I went there, I said, ‘I can do it, too.’”

So he applied for, and landed, scholarships. His father, who works in sales, and his mom, who teaches fifth grade at Rogers Lane Elementary School in Raleigh, took out a loan for his freshman year. Off he went.

Barco thrived at the school, he said, majoring in political science with a focus on pre-law. He served in student government, joined a fraternity, serving on its community service and education committees, and worked on a campus campaign to prevent sexual assault.

Just before graduating with honors, Barco was named a recipient of one of this year’s Lux Awards at Morehouse, he said.

One day, he said, he would like to represent North Carolina in the U.S. Senate.

Barco said he decided in his first year to do everything he could to keep his parents from having to take out any more loans on his behalf, especially since he has three younger brothers he hopes all will attend college.

“Atlanta is a nice, big party city,” Barco said, but he skipped the nights out and did his classwork instead. He got a job as a resident assistant starting in his sophomore year for each of the next two years, offsetting the cost of housing and food.

“You gotta take care of business,” Barco said he told himself. “I came to Morehouse to make a change, not to spend all my change.”

Now that he’s graduated, Barco is back home in Raleigh, staking out a spot in the public library to study for the LSAT. He plans to start law school in the fall, and said he’s still deciding between UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. Central in Durham.

“We are so proud of him, as a person and a son,” Barco’s mother, Dorothy, said. “Our whole family is proud.”

It’s not clear yet whether Smith will be paying off the loans Barco’s parents took out for him, or if the billionaire’s promise will cover only loans that students took out on their own.

“I don’t know how all that will work out,” he said. “But even if my loan doesn’t get paid off, it will help a lot of people.”

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Martha Quillin is a general assignment reporter at The News & Observer who writes about North Carolina culture, religion and social issues. She has held jobs throughout the newsroom since 1987.