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Paying it forward

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

When Iris Harrell’s (M.Ed.’75/E) parents 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 says. “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 VCU 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 first-generation 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, with preference given to students who are the first in their family to attend college.

Harrell spoke about her college experiences and why it’s important to help the next generation of first-generation students succeed.

What did it mean to you to be a first-generation college student?

I have a passion for first-generation college students. I always felt that I could make an impact not only for my family but also for the community and world. When I attended orientation my freshman year, I doubted myself, didn’t think that I could do it and felt like I didn’t belong. As time progressed, I became more confident, and I say that the things that I learned from my family continued to help me throughout life. When I was growing up, my mom was concerned about feeding four kids, and my dad changed jobs often, but I grew up in my mom’s salon and I learned so much about business and how to treat people. It’s what inspired me to become an entrepreneur and was a huge part of my identity as I entered college.

Because of my college education, I don’t fear talking with others, it has built my confidence. I am really proud of the diversity and growth of VCU. Being a lesbian in a heterosexual world, there have been roadblocks, but we have to change that by being more visible and prominent. Let’s not let that stop us from moving forward!

What motivated you to go to college?

I wanted to get away from my hometown in rural North Carolina. My mother was living vicariously through me, and she asked me what I wanted to be. I felt I had three choices: either become a missionary, a teacher or a nurse. In the end, I realized I loved school, I loved learning and reading so I pursued teaching.

To get a seat at the table you have to get certain skills and college helps you with that. When I left teaching, my family thought I had completely screwed up, but once my company became super successful, they saw the importance of doing something that aligns with your passion.

What was the best thing about your college experience?

In undergrad at Mary Washington College, the best thing about college was learning that the world was a lot bigger than where I came from. At VCU for graduate school, I was a young teacher and was attending school while I was teaching. While I was at VCU, a professor told me about an exchange program and I went to Poland for the summer. It was incredible to meet people from all over the United States, who had enrolled in this program. It was my firsthand experience in realizing all that the United States had to offer. It made me more empathetic, especially considering my experience with my family of origin, and it really encouraged me to be more forward thinking which is so important. I find that so often we want to keep the world how it was or is, and we don’t want to move it forward.

What advice would you give to your college self?

I think the most important thing to take away from college is to learn how to write and be comfortable with reading. Those two things can take you far and can be so helpful in the long run. Also, to make sure to take classes that will help you be a better person and get to where you want to go.

On Nov. 8, colleges and universities across the country are celebrating National First Generation College Student day. How are you celebrating?

I am hanging art at the Fountaingrove Lodge in Santa Rosa [California] that burned down in 2017, but I’m also celebrating with friends and discussing how college changed us for the better.

Why did you decide to start a scholarship particularly for first-generation college students?

The name of the scholarship is Benson-Harrell because I wanted to celebrate the long-term relationship that my partner, Ann, and I have. At the time, I wasn’t thinking about philanthropy but Ann really brought that out in me and in us to pursue. When I was a college student, I was provided with scholarships to attend college. I didn’t have any money to attend school but it felt like Mary Washington found money for me. When I was provided the scholarships, it saved me and I wanted to be able to save someone else who might face a similar situation. If I can help remove one of the many obstacles, like paying for college, I can help bless other people and remove barriers to their success. There are so many hard working people in Virginia, lots of rural Virginians that need help to provide them with the opportunity to explore their own purpose. I also have a scholarship at Mary Washington in my mother’s name, because my mom was afraid no one would remember that she had lived on this earth.

How can alumni continue to support each other and students?

It’s so important for alumni to share their successes, challenges and learnings with students. One of the most fun things I did at VCU as an alumni has been attending lunch with students. Students just asked me and Ann questions. Some students talked about how they were being faced with challenges about what to pursue in college and how to find their own passions/dreams.

As alumni, we all face transitions in life and we need support and to learn from others. It’s so important to use the network of alumni to discuss how to successfully navigate and handle those transitions.

To support first-generation students and the Harrell-Benson Scholarship, make a gift online.