Margie Benito: Helping to Fund Dreams of Higher Education

Margie Benito is the development coordinator for LMU’s Latino Alumni Association and African American Alumni Association. She has worked at Loyola Marymount since 2007, which in June will mark 12 years at this institution for her. She is Filipino and Japanese, born of immigrant parents and stands as a first-generation American-born member of her family. She was also a first-generation college student, obtaining a degree in Civil Engineering from LMU. She was born in East LA at a Japanese hospital close to downtown. She grew up in the West LA neighborhood of West Adams, where she still resides today.  

As an off-branch to Loyola Marymount’s Alumni Relations department, these two associations work to raise funds to award scholarships to Latinx and African American students. Margie says: “we’ve also had a change in the department in which they’ve decided to call us a ‘diversity initiative’. That allows the program to grow beyond just the Latino population and the African American population.” A re-branded mission to support underserved students is important because it grows the community of alumni and potential donors to create more scholarship dollars and opportunities for minority groups to help fund a private university education.

On the goal of the two alumni associations, Benito says: 

“Their main focus is raising scholarship dollars to get as many Latinos and African Americans who wouldn’t be able to afford an LMU education. Another goal is to be there as mentors; people to network with and grow their connections and to eventually find individuals that can help them and point the student in the direction that they want to go in––with a little more guidance than what they would get on their own.”

A re-branded mission to support underserved students is important because it grows the community of alumni and potential donors to create more scholarship dollars and opportunities for minority groups to help fund a private university education.

Benito feels that LMU is unique because it is thoroughly student-focused, “down to its faculty and staff.” She says that the entire relations department is “all about fundraising to take LMU to the next level. Whether that’s a capital campaign to improve facilities and buildings or creating a better environment for the students. Through fundraising, we give them better equipment for their studies.” Both the idea of expanding and improving facilities on campus for students––particularly students of color––and of helping shoulder the cost of tuition for families speaks to what bell hooks says about the importance of economic independence for women.

hooks says:

“Feminist scholarship has documented that the positive benefits masses of women have gained by entering the workforce have more to do with increased self-esteem and positive participation in community” (hooks, 50). 

Though it is not a specifically female-centered program that Benito works in, these particular associations at LMU give many young women of color the economic support to pursue a degree in higher education, which often helps in turn with finding higher paying jobs and increases the chance of both social and economic independence.

hooks concludes,

“Addressing both ways women can leave the ranks of the poor as well as strategies they can use to have a good life even if there is substantial material lack are vital to the success of the feminist movement” (hooks, 53-54). 

These funds help to bring economic and social independence through the completion of a professional degree with smaller loan debt after college. Both economic freedom and the social implications of a college degree are essential for women’s liberation in a capitalist patriarchy.

By helping to raise scholarship money, Benito works hard at giving students the chance at economic and social mobility, especially potential students from families of lower socioeconomic status that would otherwise have a small chance at obtaining a college degree without it being a destructive economic burden to both the individual and their family.

Both economic freedom and the social implications of a college degree are essential for women’s liberation in a capitalist patriarchy.

Work such as Benito’s begins to break down what Richard Rothstein calls the “racial achievement gap” in his essay, “The Racial Achievement Gap, Segregated Schools, and Segregated Neighborhoods,” where he outlines various causes of how poverty––both socially and economically––disadvantages kids in the classroom, leading to less opportunity beyond elementary school and overall, their chance at escaping their impoverished neighborhood. Rothstein says, “As these and many other disadvantages accumulate, lower social class children inevitably have lower average achievement than middle-class children, even with the highest quality instruction” (Rothstein, 223). Rothstein explains how systemically-segregated neighborhoods are directly correlated to the quality of education and rate of success students of color in America. He points out that this poverty and lower success rate is often generational––especially among Black families: 

“If a child grows up in a poor neighborhood, moving up and out to a middle-class area is typical for whites but an aberration for blacks Black neighborhood poverty is thus more multi-generational, while white neighborhood poverty is more episodic; black children in low-income neighborhoods are more likely than others to have parents who also grew up in such neighborhoods” (Rothstein, 224). 

Using this ideology, groups like the African American Alumni Association, which are bringing direct financial support to deserving students, are completing crucial work to help close this achievement gap that continues to plague families of color. As Rothstein states, “Integrating disadvantaged black students into schools where more privileged students predominate can narrow the black-white achievement gap” (Rothstein, 224). The diversity initiative that Benito says LMU is adopting and looking to expand could have a profound impact on communities of color by creating more opportunities for more families of color that are held back by generational poverty, and therefore, less opportunity for upward mobility. Bringing in support for these students helps make LMU an institution that brings equal opportunity through higher education, a goal that Rothstein explains as very important in closing the achievement gap. 

Bringing in support for these students helps make LMU an institution that brings equal opportunity through higher education, a goal that Rothstein explains as very important in closing the achievement gap. 

Benito has her own experience with the racial achievement gap. Neither of her parents went to college; the highest level of education in her immediate family came from her mother, who attended school through the Japanese equivalent of high school. Benito says: 

“I do relate a lot to the struggles that the students deal with that apply for need-based scholarships. My dad was a short-order cook and my mother was basically a housekeeper––she cleaned people’s homes. So, it was a struggle to put me through [school] and I totally relate to the struggles of applying for schools and scholarships. I had to rely on friends to help me apply.”

She was pushed to attend college, especially by her mother, who whole-heartedly believed that a good education would push her forward––past the economic hardships that very little education and the harsh stigma of being an immigrant brought to her parents. 

Benito stated that a second goal of these associations is finding mentors for students involved in the scholarship program. Overall, aside from the economic hardships of a college education, it is often hard for students of color to find role models that look like them and can relate to their experiences, when institutions systematically keep people of color at the bottom of the hierarchy. This comes from the “Plantation as Institution” model that Patricia Hill Collins describes in her paper, “Toward a New Vision: Race, Class and Gender as Categories of Analysis and Connection” (1993). Collins asserts that the hierarchies and skewed power absorption of modern institutions mirrors that of the antebellum plantation structure. White men are in the highest positions of power, whether that be president of the university and the surrounding administrators, deans of colleges, or executive board members, to name a few (78). At the bottom of the hierarchy is the vast group of minority men and women cleaning the bathrooms and serving meals in the campus dining halls. In this way, a college campus serves as a living, working plantation establishment and systematically keeps White men in particular in power. 

To overcome the plantation model of our own institution, we need more representation of women and people of color, and one of the ways we achieve that is putting women and people of color in higher positions: appointing them as deans; assigning them to chairs of major departments; awarding them tenure. 

In this way, a college campus serves as a living, working plantation establishment and systematically keeps White men in particular in power. 

Women like Benito are working at becoming more visible to female students and students of color through mentorship. Though she does not feel that she is in a position of leadership on campus, she works with students from vulnerable communities every day and understands the opportunity to work with these students. One of Benito’s goal is to be a mentor herself to the diverse students that she serves. Here’s what she says on hoping to influence the female students that pass through her programs: “I’m hoping that they see me as someone that’s approachable. I hope they know they can talk to me about anything. I haven’t experienced everything, but I have been through the trials and tribulations of being a woman.”

She adds that she sees a base of women that are “dynamic, innovative, and creative individuals” who exceptionally lead the force of female mentorship on campus. These are important words to think about in the context of bell hooks’s chapter, “Sisterhood is Powerful.”

On this, hooks says: 

“Older feminist thinkers cannot assume that young females will just acquire knowledge of feminism along the way to adulthood. They require guidance. Overall women in our society are forgetting the value and power of sisterhood” (hooks, 17). 

“I’m hoping that they see me as someone that’s approachable. I hope they know they can talk to me about anything. I haven’t experienced everything, but I have been through the trials and tribulations of being a woman.”

Mentorship within institutions that don’t always accurately represent its student population when it comes to positions of power has proved to be very important. When students have faculty members to look up to, that also look like them, they are given the extra support and inspiration that they need to succeed in an environment that they might otherwise feel is isolating and oppressive. Groups on campus like the Latino Alumni Association, African American Alumni Association, and Cultural Affairs can feel like coming home for many of our students. 

Benito is able to use her own experiences in navigating male-dominated spaces and feeling the power of sisterhood in her own life. Benito herself received impactful female mentorship growing up. She attended Notre Dame High School, a private Catholic school in Sherman Oaks. She says that being influenced by the sisters of Notre Dame at a young age has been very impactful to her professional life. On the sisters of Notre Dame, she says: 

They basically engrained in us that we were no less than anyone else––male or female. We were told to go and pursue anything that we wanted to pursue and not to let anyone in our way.” 

Raising young women on the basis of equality relates again to hooks in her chapter “Sisterhood is Still Powerful” and what hooks believes can help combat sexism––both outward and internalized––against women.

hooks says, “We continue to put in place the anti-sexist thinking and practice which affirms the reality that females can achieve self-actualization and success without dominating one another.”

This has helped Benito in her professional life, as she has pursued various careers; from teaching elementary school students, doing advertisement work in the makeup industry, to finally landing at LMU, she has pursued various jobs in assorted fields. This was also a motivating factor before her professional career: when she finished a degree in Civil Engineering at LMU. She notes that this field was very male dominated, with a small circle of fellow female students pursuing the degree––most women that attended LMU at the time were working on degrees in the liberal arts college. She was one of a few women in Seaver college––including students and staff––but did not think much of it at the time. She believed at her core that women belonged in every space on campus and was pushed to do whatever she set her mind to. 

“They basically engrained in us that we were no less than anyone else––male or female. We were told to go and pursue anything that we wanted to pursue and not to let anyone in our way.” 

Though she did not find an outstanding mentor at LMU, she mentions an important woman in her life outside of academia: an elementary school friend’s mom. Benito, coming from a household of immigrants herself, remarks how tough navigating young adulthood was. Things that many privileged households––native-born American family specifically––may deem as ready knowledge or common sense, things like filling out college applications and learning how to negotiate a car purchase, proved to be incredibly helpful skills for Benito as a young woman to learn from others. Thankfully, her friend’s mother was there to help.

Benito says of this mentor: 

“She helped me decide things that my parents could not help me with––whether that be with relationships or negotiating my first car purchase. I learned how to stand up for myself. Unfortunately, she passed away a few years back, but she really helped me find who I was and how to fight for myself.”

The helpful mother’s supportive relationship with Benito helps to defy the problem of ageism that Audre Lorde outlines in her essay “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.”

Lorde says: 

“The ‘generation gap’ is an important social tool for any repressive society. If the younger members of a community view the older members as contemptible or suspect or excess, they will never be able to join hands and examine the living memories of the community, nor ask the all important question, Why?” (Lorde, 2). 

“I learned how to stand up for myself. Unfortunately, she passed away a few years back, but she really helped me find who I was and how to fight for myself.”

By guiding Benito through crucial moments of adulthood, these women are confronting ageism: what Lorde perceives as misunderstanding and tension between generations. This is an important lesson to learn from: that sisterhood can extend past our own generation of classmates and friends that we surround ourselves with. If we work at forging relationships of different ages and backgrounds, we can learn about a variety of subjects from people that may have different backgrounds than us. 

This idea of diverse relationships is nothing new to Benito; her childhood neighborhood and her high school were very diverse places. She had friends from backgrounds that differed in race, religion, and culture. Her favorite and most prominent way of learning, understanding, and bonding with families of different backgrounds was through their respective cuisines. Benito would learn how to cook dishes from every household and holds these recipes dearly to this day. She is also still good friends with many of her childhood classmates. She says, “A lot of them, we are still friends; we’re like brothers and sisters. We don’t necessarily see each other all the time, but when we do, it’s like we pick up where we left off.” Benito and her friends were able to forge friendships on the basis of what AnaLouise Keating calls “listening with raw openness,” as she says: “Listening with raw openness begins with the belief in our interrelatedness and with the subsequent willingness to posit and seek commonalities––defined not as sameness but as intertwined differences and possible points of connection” (Keating, 54). Benito and her classmates saw their unique intersectionalities as opportunities to learn, instead of justification for aggression or vitriol. 

Benito has learned from her tough but valuable experiences of growing up as a girl from an immigrant family to push the next generation forward. She works hard to bring resources and opportunities to the students of LMU because she has full faith in the students’ ability to change the world.

When I asked her what the most rewarding part of her job was, Benito replied: 

“Students, being around students. Talking to students and hearing their viewpoint, especially with things that are happening in the world today. I think that’s very interesting. Overall, I think you guys have tremendous knowledge––more so than I think I ever had at your age. I think that the future is in your hands, as they say. Not just your own future, but the future of society. I do feel that students are just more aware of things now: the climate for one, equality, diversity. Obviously, there’s a lot of technological advancement but I think we have to get to a point where we have to decide which progress is advantageous and which is destructive. I’m counting on your generation to find that happy medium.” 

She works hard to bring resources and opportunities to the students of LMU because she has full faith in the students’ ability to change the world.

It was interesting to hear of Margie’s experiences at LMU as a student and compare it to my own experience as a student on this campus. Though it seems like we as an institution have made substantial progress in diversifying and adding numbers to the fields in which women have populated and influenced, I think the majority of the numbers have stayed the same, unfortunately. Even in departments that women are thought to dominate––like Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts––we see a substantial amount of White men that make up most of within each major department. As an English major and Women’s & Gender Studies minor, I see a stark difference between these departments and the individuals that run the programs. I gravely wish for more women and people of color in the English department because I would like to see how my two areas of study can converge to create both an enriching learning experience and a potential career path. There are few staff members that I have seen embrace both of these fields as I would like to while studying at LMU. I think that Mrs. Benito felt the same way with her experience studying here in a male-dominated Seaver college. But, like Mrs. Benito, I do believe in the diversity initiatives and the serious impact that financial support can bring to students. 

The scholarship money that I received from the Latino Alumni Association was the deciding factor for my attendance to LMU; they quite literally funded my dream.

I think it is often hard to believe in institutions of higher education when there is a lot of racist and sexist ideology that supports their foundations, but I think that working within the system as women and people of color is a necessity. For as long as we have the systems of capitalism and higher education that we do, it is still vital that we fight for equal space and opportunity within them. I believe that people like Mrs. Benito are fighting for those same rights and are creating doors for future generations to keep chipping away at that glass ceiling.

I have felt this loving support firsthand from Mrs. Benito and the Latino Alumni Association, from which I have received scholarship money from since my first year at LMU. I come from a family of public school teachers, so college has always been strongly encouraged, and though my parents were privileged enough to be able to set aside money to help fund this opportunity, it was not nearly enough to fund a private school education for 4 years. LMU was my dream school and I was elated to have been accepted, which I found out in February of my senior year. I was offered gracious amounts of scholarship money based on financial circumstances, my academic achievement in high school, and athletics, but it was still not enough to fund my dream––even with a substantial amount of loans added onto my scholarship awards. The scholarship money that I received from the Latino Alumni Association was the deciding factor for my attendance to LMU; they quite literally funded my dream. I will always remember opening the letter that offered me the opportunity to be a LAA scholar. It brings tears to my eyes thinking about the opportunities that this association has made possible for me, and I am forever grateful for the work of individuals like Margie Benito who make it possible for students like me to study at a great institution like LMU. 

Here is my full interview with Mrs. Benito.