Charlene Johnson Benn (BS ’85) had a connection to the University of Georgia before she could even walk. She was named after Charlayne Hunter-Gault (ABJ ’63), who was an award-winning journalist, foreign correspondent, civil rights activist and one of the two first Black students to attend UGA. Benn has big shoes to fill, and she takes honoring her namesake’s legacy very seriously.
Charlene’s family bleeds red and black–she, two of her siblings, her goddaughter and her children attended UGA. Their family’s journey at UGA began when her older sister, Dianne East (BBA ’83, MACC ’86), made the decision to enroll.
Dianne and Charlene babysat as teenagers for a neighborhood family who was deeply connected to UGA, and the family encouraged them to apply. Although neither of the sisters’ parents had graduated from high school, they had encouraged their children to prioritize their education. Dianne enrolled first, next was their brother, Albert Johnson Jr. (AB ’82), then Charlene.
“It was a no-brainer by then,” Charlene said of her decision to attend UGA. It was the only college she applied to.
The start of a family legacy
The three supported one another during their time at UGA, all sharing one car on campus and meeting up frequently for football games and other activities. When the Georgia Bulldogs won the college football national championship in 1980, Charlene and Dianne were cheering on their brother as he played in the Redcoat Band. After Dianne joined Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., Zeta Psi Chapter, Charlene joined the sorority as well, an experience she said helped bring her out of her shell and make the most of her college experience.
As a student, Charlene devoted herself to uplifting UGA’s Black community. She served as president of Delta Sigma Theta as well as being involved in Pamoja Singers and the Committee for Black Cultural Programs.
Charlene has continued her service to the university as an alumnus through her giving efforts and membership on the UGA Alumni Association Board of Directors. She has had the opportunity to meet her namesake, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, a few times, an experience which deepened her emotional connection to UGA even further.
She served on the Black Alumni Leadership Council, focusing on ensuring that all alumni feel a sense of ownership and passion for continuing the legacy of Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Hamilton Holmes through their giving and their support of diversity and inclusion.
Continuing the legacy
When it was time for her children and goddaughter to apply to college, Charlene strongly urged them to attend UGA because of her own experience. Both of her daughters and her goddaughter chose to attend and remember being impressed by Charlene’s love and commitment for the university years after her graduation.
Charlene and her sister were overjoyed that her children had chosen UGA because it continued their family’s legacy and deepened their own connections to the university. She showed her daughters around campus during their orientation, pointing out places that were important to her along the way—places at which her daughters would go on to make their own memories.
Peyton Fraser (BS ’14, BSED ’14), Charlene’s youngest daughter, said that coming to UGA “felt like a sense of home.”
“Our family legacy made our experience unique,” she said.
The impact of giving
Charlene’s family ties to the university have inspired her to give back. Both she and her sister received scholarships to attend UGA and are very grateful for the contributions that helped make their time at UGA possible. The two created a need-based scholarship in 2020 in support of minority students. The scholarship, called the Albert and Naomi Johnson Scholarship, is named in honor of their parents and empowers students who otherwise may not have been able to attend college.
“We wanted to make a path for anyone who really wants to get an education,” Charlene said. “Small scholarship funds made all the difference for us.”
Charlene credits UGA with her professional success. She got her first job after graduating from UGA at SunTrust (now Truist) after meeting her boss, a fellow Bulldog, at a UGA job fair. The job launched her lifelong career in information technology and financial services. She currently works as senior director of operations and technology strategy at Fiserv, a financial technology company.
“I will tell anyone that my attendance at the University of Georgia has made all the difference in my life,” she said.