“I said, ‘Of course you are. You’re part of the University.’ We were laughing, but it emphasized for me that perhaps there isn’t a [strong] sense of belonging [among graduate school alumni], and we want to work on that.”
Hence her mission as the new chair of the Fordham University Alumni Association’s (FUAA) Advisory Board. Benner, who graduated from Fordham College at Rose Hill in 1984 and previously served as the board’s vice chair, will be taking over for John Pettenati, FCRH ’81, the FUAA’s founding chair, in January. And when she does, she wants to unite all University alumni, all around the world, during her four-year term.
During this year’s Homecoming celebration, members of the FUAA gathered for a toast to recognize the advisory board’s ongoing work and commitment to the University. During the event, Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham, recognized all that Benner has contributed to Fordham thus far. “You brought in grit, courage, determination, and you never lost it,” he said. “You brought it to Fordham. You endowed Fordham with your enthusiasm.”
Referencing Benner’s undergraduate involvement with Mimes and Mummers, the theater group at Rose Hill, Pettenati added, “I know how passionate she was about that organization: She’s going to bring that passion to the FUAA.”
Benner said she has been thinking about how to stay engaged with Fordham almost since she graduated, and her leadership role on the advisory board enables her to get involved on a deeper level.
A Buffalo, New York, native, Benner said that in the ’80s, she was one of relatively few students from outside the New York metropolitan area. In recent decades, Fordham has transformed itself from a strong regional institution to a prestigious national university.
As board president, Benner plans to offer FUAA programming and events designed to unite all University alumni, particularly those who tend to think only of their affiliation with a particular campus, or with an undergraduate or graduate school, or who live beyond the New York metro area. “The thing we have in common is Fordham University; that’s what’s printed on each of our degrees,” she said. “Once you’ve graduated, you are in the world, and you wear lots of hats. You’re not your major.”
Benner added that although many of us have Zoom fatigue after being in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic for nearly two years, online programming has afforded alumni who live outside the New York metropolitan area far more opportunities to get more involved with their alma mater. She’s optimistic that it will continue to be “a portal through which alumni can stay involved and feel that they have a role—that they can volunteer in some capacity from where they are.”
Benner’s first six months in office will put her mission to the test, with both virtual and in-person events planned for all alumni. The fifth annual FUAA Alumni Recognition Reception will be held on January 20 in the ballroom at the historic 583 Park Avenue. Created by the advisory board’s networking and engagement task force, the reception hasn’t been held in person since 2020. (Last year, it was held virtually.)
And Forever Learning Week, planned by the Forever Learning task force to offer alumni “master classes taught at Fordham,” will kick off on March 28. Last year, the programming was offered virtually throughout April. “Hundreds of alumni from around the world dialed in,” Benner said. “It was fascinating because it was the mosaic of all the parts that make up Fordham.”
In addition to uniting alumni across schools, Benner hopes that she’ll be able to unite alumni across experiences, too, recognizing that Fordham is a different university than the one she attended—but in the best possible ways.
“We’ll all have different experiences, increasingly diverse experiences, more cosmopolitan experiences,” she said. “But we are all from Fordham University, the Jesuit University of New York. We have New York in common. So, whatever our generation, whatever our school or campus, we’ve got that to open the door. That’s our calling card to have something in common.”
What are you most passionate about?
Doing all that I can to open doors to opportunity for others.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Some decisions make themselves.
What’s your favorite place in New York City? In the world?
In New York, anyplace where the Chrysler Building is within view. In the world, in Paris, sitting on the Seine River’s stone embankment watching boats and people of the world glide by while imagining scenes from history play out in that setting.
Name a book that has had a lasting influence on you.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (HarperTorch, 1974) by Robert M. Pirsig
Who is the Fordham grad or professor you remember most?
English professor Richard Giannone because his syllabus introduced me to the writing of the masterful author Joan Didion.
What are you optimistic about?
That whatever our troubles are in whatever our era, solutions can be forged by the handiwork of people coming together sincerely to find a common cause.