She just graduated from college. She said her Uber passenger made it possible.

By Sydney Page

May 14, 2021 at 6:00 a.m. EDT

Latonya Young, 44, with Kevin Esch, 45, who was her Uber passenger three years ago. Esch surprised Young by paying off her student debt so she could resume classes at Georgia State University. She received a bachelor’s degree on May 6. (Courtesy of Kevin Esch)

Latonya Young, a 44-year-old single mother of three, received a bachelor’s degree last week. It was a lifelong goal — and she credits one of her Uber passengers with making it possible.

She met the passenger three years ago when she pulled over in downtown Atlanta to pick him up.

Kevin Esch, who had just come from an Atlanta United soccer game, got into her car. The two started chatting.

“The conversation was easy and felt authentic,” said Esch, 45.

He shared details 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, who had been an Uber driver for three years, was working late that night because she needed money to pay a utility bill.

And he learned something else: Young wanted to be the first member of her family to graduate from college. Although Young started taking classes at Georgia State University in 2010, she 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.”

Young and Esch check in weekly and have remained friends over the past three years. (Kevin Esch)

But a few weeks later, when Young tried to re-enroll at Georgia State, she was told that she wasn’t permitted to register until her balance from eight years earlier was paid in full. She owed $693 — a sum she couldn’t afford.

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.”

Young never imagined that her Uber passenger, of all people, would give her the financial and emotional push she needed to move forward.

“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.

Young was grateful for the support, she said, after years of working multiple jobs and putting off her education. When she got pregnant at age 16 with her oldest son, she dropped out of high school but eventually received her GED. As time wore on, her desire to go back to school never waned, even though it seemed out of reach.

“It was like I was stuck inside a box and couldn’t get out. I was just trying to do whatever I had to do to take care of my kids,” Young said, adding that she was also in a car accident in 2015, which further set her back financially.

Every time Young saved enough money to pay off the balance and re-enroll in classes, “something would come up, my kids needed stuff. I put my education on hold to take care of my family,” she said.

Young, a single mother of three sons, dreamed of becoming the first member of her family to graduate from college. (Kevin Esch)

After meeting Esch, though, “I felt it was time for me to do something for myself, and to set an example for my kids,” Young said. Plus, she added, “I wanted to remain a woman of my word and do exactly what I told Kevin I was going to do.”

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.

“It meant everything to me that Kevin was there,” said Young, who often leaned on him for mentoring and advice. “It was a good feeling.”

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.”

Esch attended Young’s graduation in December 2019, when she earned her associate’s degree in criminal justice from Georgia State’s Perimeter College. (Kevin Esch)

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 the 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.

“It’s just so inspiring and touching,” she said of their friendship. Young, as well as many other women in similar situations, “deserve to make a life instead of just making a living.”

“We’re giving them that extra boost to push across the finish line,” Sterk said.

Since 1976, the organization has helped more than 1,300 American women earn a postsecondary degree, according to the foundation’s website.

In Young’s case, the financial assistance was deeply appreciated.

“The funding helped me get through the hardships,” Young said, adding that it was often difficult to manage being a single mother while working two jobs and keeping up with her classes.

Her experience is not uncommon, said Nancy Kropf, the dean of Perimeter College.

She said Young’s story of going to college later in life “put into focus that we have to take very seriously who our students are, and the responsibility that we have to nurture them to stay in school. Reentering higher education is not easy.”

Despite the challenges, though, Young graduated with her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Georgia State’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies on May 6. Of course, alongside her family, Esch was in the stands once again — beaming with joy.

Esch and Young at the graduation in December 2019. Young said Esch’s belief in her was something that motivated her to continue her education. (Sandford Banks)

When Young’s name was called, “it was just pure pride,” Esch said. “I’m proud that she followed through with what she said she would do for herself.”

“She is such an inspiration to me, but also to so many people who are in the same position as her,” he continued. “She’s got an incredible future ahead of her.”

Reaching her goal was “a surreal feeling,” said Young, who also successfully raised her GPA from 2.9 to 3.5 by the time she graduated. “I’m very proud of my achievements.”

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.”