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Valedictorian Ariana Benson Uses Creative Writing to Preserve Cultural Memory

May 2019

Ariana Benson

After taking a biology course during her freshman year, Ariana Benson, C’2019, realized she wasn’t interested in body mechanics. She wanted to do more than treat patients. She wanted to be able to tell their stories.

“I realized medicine interested me because of the patient narratives, not the actual science,” said Benson, valedictorian of Spelman’s class of 2019. “So, I decided to change my career path without actually changing my major.”

Benson, who will receive her bachelor of science in psychology, enlisted the help of Spelman’s faculty and created a cross-discipline team of mentors who helped her find ways to bridge her art with her talent for science by integrating psychological principles with poetic practice and Black storytelling traditions.

She credits her mentors -- television writer Elyce Strong Mann and award-winning poet Sharan Strange, with helping her develop her voice. “These women were not only excellent mentors, they were shining examples of Black women writers, and their love for writing gave me the courage to pursue my passion,” said Benson.

Her fusion of psychology and creative writing as a means to interrogate methods by which modern Black narratives serve to curate and preserve collective cultural memory earned her a Marshall Scholarship in 2018.

“It has been exciting to have Ariana in my classes, witnessing her thoughtful, probing discussions of poetry and her generous, insightful critiques of her peers' work,” said Strange, senior lecturer in the Spelman English department.

“We can feel assured that she will make the most of the opportunities afforded her by a Marshall Scholarship, and will go on to distinguish herself as a thinker and writer who serves a greater social vision.”

Benson is the 2019 recipient of the Academy of American Poets'/Edith A. Hambie Poetry Prize. In addition to honing her creative writing skills, Benson served as captain of Spelman’s Honda Campus All-Star Challenge Quizbowl team, helping to earn $51,000 in scholarship grants for the College. She is a member of Alpha Lambda Delta, Psi Chi International Honor Society for Psychology, and Phi Beta Kappa.

“For me, Spelman represented a kind of safe haven that I had never had access to growing up in predominantly white Chesapeake,” said the Virginia native. “It was a chance not to be seen as the 'smart Black girl' but just as one smart girl surrounded by other very smart girls.”

After graduation, Benson will continue her studies in London, pursuing masters degrees in creative writing and screenwriting at Royal Holloway, University of London in the United Kingdom.