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W&M Commencement a family tradition for the Bensons

  • A shared alma mater
    A shared alma mater
    The Benson family poses for a photo outside of the Wren Building during Commencement weekend in 2011, when Greg graduated from the university. His parents, Audrey and Bob, also graduated from W&M, and their daughter, Jess, will graduate from the university this weekend.
    Courtesy photo
  • First visit
    First visit
    Greg and Jess Benson first visited William & Mary at a young age: Greg (left) in 1989 and Jess in 1993.
    Courtesy photo
  • Family tradition
    Family tradition
    The Benson family (including Bob's mom) poses for a photo near the Crim Dell in 1993.
    Courtesy photo
  • Making her mark
    Making her mark
    Although all four of the Bensons attended W&M, they all had different experiences at the university. Jess was the only member of the family to focus on the sciences at W&M, and she also competed on the university's equestrian team. She is pictured here (holding the yellow ribbon) after competing in zone finals just a few weeks ago.
    Courtesy photo

When Jess Benson ’14 moved into William & Mary as a freshman, her mother told her that the next four years would be “intellectual boot camp,” but they would also be some of the best years of her life.

“In retrospect, I can say now that both of those statements turned out to be true,” said Jess.

It was advice born of experience. Audrey Pinkham Benson ’79 graduated from William & Mary, as did her husband, Robert “Bob” Benson ’77, and their son, Greg Benson ’11. On Sunday, Jess will complete the family tradition, graduating with the rest of the Class of 2014 while her family members – who all stood in her place once – cheer her on.

“Commencement will encompass so many emotions this year: the meaning of this rite of passage to each member of our family, my tremendous pride in Jess and all she has done to experience William & Mary to the full, and sadness that our ‘second generation’ chapter is coming to close,” said Audrey. “I remember my Senior Walk with my friends, and now Jess will have that treasured moment of her own.”

Bob and Audrey at a fraternity dance in the old Campus Center ballroom in 1977. ''Little did we think that we would attend W&M graduation for both of our kids someday,'' said Bob.Jess grew up in Arlington, Virginia, hearing about William & Mary from her parents, who met at the now defunct campus pub “Hoi Polloi.” They told Jess and Greg stories about their participation in Greek life (he was with Pi Kappa Alpha, she Phi Mu) and Robert’s job at the King’s Arms Tavern in Colonial Williamsburg. They even taught their children the William & Mary fight song and “Our Alma Mater.”

When it came time for Jess to look at colleges, she decided to apply to William & Mary early decision, making it her top choice.

“I grew up coming down to campus for homecomings and various other events, so William & Mary was always high on my college list, although my parents tried to make it very clear that there was no pressure to go here,” she said. “Ultimately I think what won me over was the sense of community here (I could certainly see the strong ties my parents and brother had to the school), the close relationships between faculty and students, and the ability to do real research with professors as an undergrad.”

Jess was a Tribe fan from an early age. She is pictured here at age 3, decked out in green and gold.Although all four of the Bensons ended up attending William & Mary, each of their experiences has been unique, Jess noted.

“William & Mary has given us a lot of shared experiences, but we’ve also each been able to do something a little different, which I think is pretty cool,” she said.

Bob majored in government and was heavily involved in Greek life; he now manages the ocean protection program in Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Water. Audrey performed with the Orchesis Dance Company and pursued language and linguistics; she is now a fifth-grade teacher at the Arlington Traditional School.

Greg focused on writing and theatre during his time at William & Mary. He went on to earn a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Glasgow in Scotland.

Jess participates in a regional competition last year as part of the W&M Equestrian Team.Jess, a biology major, was the only member of the family to pursue the sciences at William & Mary. She has worked on an independent research project since her freshman year and received the William & Mary Alumni Association’s Student Academic Prize in Organismal Biology this year. In addition to her academic pursuits, Jess has also competed on the university’s equestrian team throughout her four years at W&M.

“William & Mary's great strength, and the reason it means so much to our family, is that people here are surrounded with opportunities to grow,” said Audrey. “All four of us have very different interests, academically, socially and recreationally, yet the College provided avenues for each of us to explore and enrich our lives, making us the individuals we are today.”

As she prepares to graduate, Jess is looking forward to attending veterinarian school at Virginia Tech’s Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine next year. However, she is certain she is going to miss William & Mary.

“I’m probably going to miss the friends I’ve made, the professors I’ve worked with for years, and all the quirky little traditions that make William & Mary the unique place that it is,” she said.

Although she will be the last of her family to graduate from the College, Jess said that they won’t be away for long. In fact, they plan on returning in the fall for Homecoming, which will be the first for Jess as an alumna and her mom’s 35th.

Should there be future generations of Bensons one day, Jess said that she’ll definitely recommend that they continue the family tradition and make the alma mater of the nation their alma mater, too.

“I believe that I’ve not only received a fabulous education here, but I also loved just being here,” Jess said. “The College really feels like home. Plus, the alumni clearly feel ties to the College long after they graduate, and I think that’s very special. That sense of community extends beyond the walls of the College itself.”

As the family prepares for Commencement on Sunday, Audrey and Bob are reflecting on what the William & Mary has meant to them throughout the years.

"As proud William and Mary alumni who truly enjoyed our years there, we were thrilled that both of our children chose to attend the College,” said Bob. “Now that Greg has graduated and Jessica is about to graduate, we are so grateful that they too have had wonderful experiences at William & Mary, and we are reminded once again of how much this special place has meant to all of us."