*Latonya Young, a 44-year-old single mother of three, received her bachelor’s degree last week, thanks to the incredible generosity of a random passenger she picked up three years ago.
Kevin Esch had just come from an Atlanta United soccer game downtown when he got into her car. “The conversation was easy and felt authentic,” Esch, 45, told The Washington Post. He opened up about his recent divorce, and Young — whose marriage ended in 2011 — offered advice. During the half-hour ride to Esch’s home, he learned that Young had been an Uber driver for three years, and was working late that night to earn the money for a utility bill. He also found out that Young wanted to be the first member of her family to graduate from college. Although she started taking classes at Georgia State University in 2010, she had to dropped out a year later because she couldn’t pay the tuition.
Once they arrived at his home, Esch, an estate manager, tipped Young $150 — enough to cover the utility bill — and gave her his phone number.
“She promised me that she would go back to school,” he said, adding that he asked her to keep him informed throughout the enrollment process. It was the start of an unexpected friendship.
After the Uber ride, “I had my mind made up that I wanted to go back to school,” she said. “He motivated me.”
But when Young tried to re-enroll a few weeks later, Georgia State financial officials told her she wasn’t permitted to register until her balance from eight years earlier, $693, was paid in full. She couldn’t afford it. When she told Esch about the financial hold, he immediately went to the university, without Young’s knowledge, and paid off her debt.
“I didn’t want that to be a roadblock, because it was something that I could change,” Esch said. “I was in a place to be able to do it, and it was the right thing to do.”
“I was in shock,” Young said. “This person barely knew me, and yet he wanted to help me.” She vowed to pay him back, but his response was: “Pay me back by graduating.”
She re-enrolled in courses, and in December 2019, Young received her associate’s degree in criminal justice from Georgia State’s Perimeter College. Esch was there on graduation day, cheering her on in the stands. Still, “I knew I wasn’t finished,” she said. Getting a bachelor’s degree was her ultimate goal, “so I went straight ahead. Not only was I aiming for that, but I was aiming to raise my GPA as much as I could before I graduated.”
By this point, their story had made national news and Ellen DeGeneres booked them on her show in January 2020.
Amid the national attention, Young continued with her studies while working part time as a substitute teacher, as well as a hairstylist. She also received support from the Jeanette Rankin Women’s Scholarship Fund, which offers financial aid to low-income women older than 35 pursuing postsecondary education. Esch is now a board member of that organization, after Karen Sterk, the chief operating officer of the charity, heard about his friendship with Young and thought he’d be a perfect fit.
On May 6, 2021, Young graduated with her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Georgia State’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies. Esch was in the stands once again, alongside her family.
She called it a “double graduation,” since she recently secured a new apartment for her family and left public housing after 12 years.
Young is applying for a full-time job in criminal justice. She also spent the past two years writing a book titled “From Broken to Blessed,” which is due June 7. The book tells her life story, and how one Uber ride unexpectedly changed everything.
“I don’t know what situation I would be in if I hadn’t met Kevin,” Young said. “I hope his kindness inspires other people to help someone.”
No matter how her future unfolds, she said, “I gained a dear friend through all of this.”