Students crossing the bridge from Nau Hall to New Cabell or exploring the McIntire School of Commerce may come across one of the six newly installed memorial benches on Grounds. These simple, curved white pieces of concrete – engraved with the names of women and members of other marginalized groups deeply involved in the University – were recently installed in the frame of fourth-year commerce student Sanjeev Kumar. Memorial Benches Initiative.
Facilities management installed six of the 1,100-pound outdoor benches this summer. Each bench features the name of a winner and a QR code with links to more information about the individuals and the project itself.
The initiative originated during Kumar’s first year at the university, when he and Abigail Schofield, collaborator and fourth-year student, noticed that the majority of artworks, monuments and other objects of recognition were centered on white men.
“Looking around we saw statues of Thomas Jefferson, buildings of men,” Kumar said. “We didn’t see any women or people of color in the built environment, even though U.Va. prides itself on diversity within the student body.
Over the next two years, Kumar and Schofield contacted faculty members, wrote proposals, raised funds, and ultimately came up with a plan—a bench dedicated to one graduate from each undergraduate school at the University.
Kumar also played a major role in designing the benches. He chose concrete over other materials like wood to maximize the longevity of the pieces, and opted for a curved design to encourage discussion and thought.
“The nature of the benches is that people sit down and can face each other,” Kumar said. “There’s no back, so it’s a bit shapeless, to foster a sense of conversation around the people using the bench.”
A bench near New Cabell Hall honors Karen Wood, alumnus of the College and director of Indian programs in Virginia. Woods was a member of the Monacan Tribe – a group that originally inhabited the land the University occupies today – and advocated for Native American interests in Virginia.
Another Thornton Hall bench remembers Wesley Harris, an engineering graduate and activist, to highlight his experience as the first black student to enter the Jefferson Society, as well as his work with the Thomas Jefferson Council on Human Relations. During his time as
An engineering student, Harris worked to coordinate Dr. Martin Luther King’s visit to the University in March 1963, months before King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Kumar also considered performing at the University’s College at Wise campus, where a bench honoring Sandra Jones22-year-old former staffer and chair of the Black History Committee, was installed September 17.
To coordinate bench locations, Kumar worked with members of facilities management, including manager Mark Stanis. Stanis praised the Memorial Benches initiative and said witnessing initiatives like Kumar’s is one of the reasons he has enjoyed working at the University for 23 years now.
“I think it’s invigorating to have young adults thinking about these things and having the tenacity to really keep going,” Stanis said.
Stanis also talked about the bench’s contrast to typical University architecture, a feature he hopes will draw attention to the purpose of the project.
“Walking around Grounds, people will see these benches now…and you’re drawn to them because it’s different,” Stanis said. “And then when you scan the QR code and read the project vision, I think it’s really helpful.”
Throughout the project, Abby Palko, director of the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center, served as an advisor, answering questions and providing feedback. Palko said the project aimed to fill a void in representation, and she admires Kumar’s community-based approach.
“[The project] talks about what I hear from students saying they need visible markers that show everyone belongs here,” Palko said. “The other layer that I find so impressive is how much work Kumar put into it and how he was able to seek advice and take advice from people all over Grounds.”
For his efforts with the Memorial Benches Initiative and beyond, Kumar received the John Casteen Diversity Award honoring academic leaders in diversity, equity and inclusion. Even after the success of the project, Kumar remains committed to inclusivity efforts. Together he and Schofield founded She writes history — a CIO dedicated to sharing women’s stories — as an enduring continuation of the project’s goal of promoting diversity, equity and inclusion for women and other marginalized communities. Schofield is currently president of the organization.
Kumar hopes to use the insights from his experience with the pews to promote She Writes History and similar initiatives. He is also in the process of advocating for an Asian student center on Grounds, an effort that Palko says will bolster the bench’s impact.
“It’s not just about changing the built landscape to create these memorial benches so that there are markers that represent the full spectrum of the student body,” Palko said. “It’s also down to earth, the depth to advocate for the resources and spaces students need while they’re here so they can make the most of their time at U.Va. And they can come away with the strongest education possible, and then go on to change the world and make it a better place.