Iris Harrell and Ann Benson
When Iris Harrell’s parents got divorced during her junior year at what is now the University of Mary Washington, her college education was left in jeopardy. She didn’t have enough money to supplement the scholarships that had allowed her to be the first member of her North Carolina farming family to attend college. “But [Mary Washington administrators] went into a back room and found some scholarships that they hadn’t awarded,” Harrell said. “They just gave it to me and I was able to finish school. And my life has been way different — and better — because I got a college degree.”
Harrell, who went on to earn a master’s degree from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Education in 1975, taught for several years, was a touring folk musician and ultimately founded a successful construction and remodeling company in California with her wife, Ann Benson, is now giving back to help students like her obtain an education. Harrell and Benson have made a $1 million planned gift to the College of Humanities and Sciences to create the Harrell-Benson Scholarship for students in the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies.
“Scholarships are about your legacy,” Harrell said. “I got mine. I want to make sure that the next generation of people get theirs.”
Montse Fuentes, Ph.D., former dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences, said the college — which houses the core disciplines in the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities at VCU, and has two schools and 19 programs and departments — is proud to be the home of the Harrell-Benson Scholarship. “This scholarship reinforces our commitment as a college to a liberal arts education that provides an environment for dialogue, training and application of scholarship in gender, sexuality, LGBTQIA+, race, class and women’s issues,” Fuentes said. “As the intellectual heart of VCU, the college welcomes through this scholarship the opportunity to impact the lives of many generations of students in financial need, while nurturing a culture of inclusion and positivity.”
Kathleen M. Ingram, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, said the Harrell-Benson Scholarship will be life-changing for many students in the years to come. “We are overwhelmed with gratitude as we envision the students who will benefit from the scholarship, including students who might not be able to attend VCU otherwise,” she said. “The recipients of the Harrell-Benson Scholarship will make important contributions in the classroom, will move into leadership roles on campus, and will ‘walk their talk’ about promoting social justice in their families, workplaces and communities. In addition to making an enormous positive impact on our students the Harrell-Benson Scholarship will produce countless ripple effects in helping to create a world where LGBTQIA+ people and those from other marginalized groups are truly valued and celebrated.”
Harrell said she and Benson wanted to support students studying gender, sexuality and women’s studies, as well as LGBTQIA+ issues, in part because those young people often face additional challenges and need support. “They’re thrown out of their families [more often], they’re more likely to be disconnected. So sometimes even if a family has money, [the student] doesn’t get that kind of support they need,” Harrell said. “We’re interested in the studies of equality around that and we want that department to flourish and we want people to be attracted to that department, to major in that, and to help equalize the rights of these people.”
Above all, Harrell said, she and Benson — her partner of 39 years — want to give young people the same opportunities that she received. “There are [possibly future] entrepreneurs, there are contributors, there are fantastic people who just aren’t able to escape the centrifugal force of their background because of a lack of money,” Harrell said. “And the best opportunity to have a galaxy that’s bigger than the one you’ve been raised in is to go to a university.”