Brianna Reaves ’22 said it was humbling to receive the Grace Mann Launch Award at the University of Mary Washington’s annual Eagle Awards ceremony in the spring of 2022.
“To be considered selfless, committed, and honorable like Grace Mann was a lot to take in,” Brianna said. “She planned to change the world.”
After Grace’s death in 2015, her parents, Thomas and Melissa Mann, worked with the University to establish an endowment to honor their daughter’s memory and support Mary Washington seniors on the verge of “launching into the world.” Like Grace, each of the seven recipients who have received the award spent their college years building coalitions, empowering their peers, and encouraging the UMW community to live up to its ideals. They’re now carrying on Grace’s legacy by continuing to work for peace and justice just as she planned to do.
“Grace grew up discussing social justice issues around the dinner table, in school, and at our synagogue,” Melissa Mann said. “In Judaism, there’s a common phrase, Tikkun Olam, that means ‘repair the world.’ Grace gravitated toward that idea from the start.”
At UMW, Grace majored in American studies and minored in practical ethics. She became a campus leader, joining People for the Rights of Individuals of Sexual Minorities (PRISM), Feminists United, and the Student Government Association Senate. She advocated tirelessly for the rights of women, the LGBTQ+ community, immigrants, and underrepresented citizens, and for protecting the environment. And she aspired to become a lawyer to help survivors of sexual assault.
“I met Grace on her first day at Mary Washington and her commitment to social justice was already so apparent,” said Associate Vice President and Dean of Student Life Emeritus Cedric Rucker.
For the past seven years, he has chaired the award committee to select each year’s recipient, a responsibility has been passed on to Dean of Students Melissa Jones after his retirement earlier this year. Award nominations open in the spring semester and are due in early March.
“For us, it’s about giving these students financial support so they can pursue their own passions,” said Melissa Mann, who attends the Eagle Awards each year to meet and congratulate the recipients. Winners have their own goals, Dean Rucker said, “but each recognizes they are inheriting Grace’s commitments.”
The award first went to Megan Blosser ’16, who shared Grace’s interest in survivor advocacy, volunteering at Rappahannock Council Against Sexual Assault while she was a UMW student.
“It was such an honor to be the inaugural Grace Mann Launch Award recipient,” Megan said. She put the funds toward books and other necessities while earning a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and now works in the justice system. “I feel that it’s a proactive way of addressing violence because many offenders have experienced trauma in their own lives. I want to help break that cycle.”
Brittany Greene ’17 served as a sexual assault peer educator at UMW. Now a registered nurse at an OBGYN clinic, she advocates on behalf of women and LGBTQ+ patients, helping them feel empowered in making their own medical decisions. And she is particularly passionate about improving Black maternal care.
“It’s important that my patients know they can trust me,” said Brittany, who used the award’s funds to pay nursing school tuition at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she graduated with honors in 2020. “Every day I hope I’m making Grace proud.”
After graduation, Ahad Shahid ’18 took a job with the nonprofit New Virginia Majority, cultivating a multiracial movement focused on civic engagement, issues advocacy, and community organizing. But traveling to college campuses around the state took a toll on his car, so the award’s funds helped him put a down payment on a new one.
Now Ahad works at the Wilderness Society, creating digital campaigns to make public lands more accessible, equitable, and approachable for all, especially marginalized communities.
“Grace was a persistent and brave fighter who advocated for those in need that have been systemically wronged,” he said. “We should all be more like Grace. I’m striving to honor her legacy.”
Coming out during high school was a milestone for Erin Shaw ’19. At Mary Washington, they aspired to make the campus more inclusive through serving in prominent roles with PRISM, Safe Zone, and the Multicultural Leadership Council.
Employed by the Human Rights Campaign, Erin is now focused on encouraging corporations to adopt LGBTQ+ supportive policies. “I want to honor Grace’s legacy by doing whatever I can to make forward progress,” they said.
Born in Tanzania, Nehemia Abel ’20 and his family settled in the Fredericksburg region in 2008. He later worked with UMW’s Center for Economic Development to start UBUMWE, using the Grace Mann Launch Award funds to support his community organization’s work unifying and empowering Burundians as they pursue higher education and careers. “Receiving the award reminded me that I’m following in Grace’s footsteps,” he said.
After graduating from UMW, he earned the Donald M. Payne International Development Graduate Fellowship, which covered the cost of his master’s degree in global human development at Georgetown University. Studying refugee and humanitarian assistance, he plans to join the USAID foreign service.
“Being even tangentially related to Grace’s legacy remains the proudest moment of my life,” said Jessica Lynch ’21, who relied on the award’s funds during her AmeriCorps position with New River Gorge National Park in West Virginia. “I even brought the award in to show my colleagues and tell them about Grace and her impact on me.”
A historic preservation and American studies major, Jessica now serves as a museum technician for the park, creating social media campaigns highlighting artifacts to teach visitors about the history of women and African Americans living in Appalachia, whose stories are often untold.
Growing up, Brianna Reaves ’22 had a “big and boisterous voice” that she used to speak out against racial injustice. At Mary Washington, she helped found and lead UMW’s NAACP chapter, was a member of JFMC’s inaugural Farmers Fellows program, and served as a peer mentor for underrepresented students. She also made history as the first Black female Student Government Association president at the University.
Now that she has graduated from UMW, Brianna intends to use her experiences and the award’s funds to launch Black Girl at a PWI, a nonprofit to provide emotional, financial, and social support to Black students, especially women, at predominantly white institutions. She’s also beginning graduate programs in international peace and conflict resolution, as well as theological studies, at American University and Wesley Theological Seminary, respectively.
“I am not deserving of the award simply because I lead well – Grace was deserving of a full life so she could live out her purpose,” Brianna wrote on social media last spring. “I plan to honor her legacy by walking in my purpose as a change agent for social justice in the face of oppression.”
To make a gift to the Grace Mann Launch Award or for information on endowments at the University of Mary Washington, please contact the Office of University Advancement at firstname.lastname@example.org or 540-654-1024.
-Article written by Assistant Director of Advancement Communications Jill Laiacona