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Paying It Forward

Through their scholarship, Iris Harrell and Ann Benson help first-generation students reach their educational goals.

When Iris Harrell’s (M.Ed.’75/E) 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.

In 2018, Harrell and Benson 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.”

“Scholarships are about your legacy. I got mine. I want to make sure that the next generation of people get theirs.”

In addition to the $1 million gift, Harrell and Benson, along with friends and college faculty, give a Harrell-Benson Scholarship that is awarded every fall. It is awarded to an undergraduate student majoring or minoring in gender, sexuality and women’s studies. Students in need of financial support are given preference, as are students who are the first in their family to attend college.

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 40-plus 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.”

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