Staff, press and visitors including Exeter’s Lord Mayor gathered on campus on 10 February for the unveiling of a bronze statue of Baroness Floella Benjamin OBE, former Chancellor.
Vice Chancellor Sir Steve Smith began the ceremony, which Baroness Benjamin attended with her husband and two sisters. Thanking her for “being such a memorable and dedicated Chancellor of our University,” he said the statue “will stand for evermore in a place of prominence on campus.”
“Her friendly nature and personal warmth with each and every student is without doubt going to be our prevailing memory,” Smith added. Benjamin attended the graduations of 35,000 students in 175 ceremonies during her decade as Chancellor. “Thank you Floella for your hard work and dedication, for being a wonderful ambassador for the University, and particularly for the words of encouragement and inspiration you gave every graduating student,” Smith said. “You have been a unique Chancellor.”
The statue’s sculptor Luke Shepherd, from Cardiff, also attended the ceremony with his wife. Shepherd has previously worked on portrait sculptures of celebrities including Billy Connolly and Christopher Biggins, and has had works displayed in national museums across the UK.
Students’ Guild President Toby Gladwin followed Sir Steve’s speech with yet more praise – recalling the “infectious positivity” Baroness Benjamin brought to every ceremony she attended.
“What united students at the University of Exeter across all our campuses was that whatever they were studying and however long they studied, waiting for them at their journey’s end was Floella and an affectionate hug,” he said. “A hug that has become student folklore and in its brevity acts as the perfect metaphor for the Exeter experience. A beaming welcome with open arms of friendship, a sustained and meaningful embrace that goes above and beyond the norm, followed by a departing resolve to ‘change the world’ as they leave the stage and enter the terrifying ‘real world’.
Benjamin herself then gave an emotional and entertaining speech thanking Sir Steve for the opportunity. This was one of those “who would have thought it?” moments, she said, remembering arriving in England almost 60 years ago from Trinidad as a bewildered young girl. Calling upon students to remember the “three Cs” – consideration of others, contentment, and confidence in who you are as a person – she gave heartfelt recognition to the friends and University officials at the ceremony, before unveiling the statue to loud applause.
Under the new statue is a time capsule containing messages from students personally greeted by Floella at graduation ceremonies during her decade at Exeter.