RICHMOND, Va. — Iris Harrell and her wife Ann Benson have pledged a $1 million gift to Virginia Commonwealth University’s College of Humanities and Sciences. The money will help establish the Harrell-Benson Scholarship supporting Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies students.
“This scholarship will help inspire new paths and careers and contribute to diverse perspectives both in and beyond our university as our students learn through activism, scholarly and creative production, and community engagement,” Bethanie Constant, senior director of development for the College of Humanities and Sciences, said. “We are so grateful to Iris and Ann for their genuine and visible care for our students.”
Applications for the scholarship open in August.
“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,” Dr. Montse Fuentes, dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences, 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.”
Harrell told VCU she and Benson wanted to support students studying gender, sexuality and women’s studies, as well as LGBTQIA+ issues, because of the challenges those students can face.
“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.”
Harrell, who earned a master’s degree from the VCU School of Education in 1975, owns a construction and remodeling company in California with Benson.
“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.”