Growing up in rural Southwest Virginia, Sally Brannan Hurt dreamed of travel. She finally got her chance to go abroad to the Bahamas during a spring break trip in college. Yet, she realized she yearned to see rainforests and savannas more than she wanted to sunbathe in the sand.
“Being in nature brings me joy,” said Sally, who has since visited some of the most biodiverse places on the planet through the University of Mary Washington’s Alumni on the Road trips. “I love seeing plants, insects, and animals that aren’t in my neck of the woods.”
UMW students have been able to take their own excursions because of the Sally Brannan Hurt ’92 Study Abroad Scholarship in Biology, which she established soon after going on an Alumni trip to the Galápagos Islands in 2011. Under the direction of Professor of Biology Andrew Dolby, dozens of her recipients have explored the flora and fauna found on this remote archipelago off the coast of Ecuador.
“Getting to experience a global ecological treasure like the Galápagos Islands inspires students like nothing else,” said Dr. Dolby, who helped Sally work with UMW’s Office of Advancement to set up the scholarship. “Sally opens up the world for students who would not be able to travel internationally without support.”
That’s true of Kylie Jackson ’24, who was surprised to learn her donor grew up near her hometown of Rocky Mount, Virginia. Along with her classmates, the UMW senior visited four different islands during spring break, where she observed and learned about wildlife from local guides, visited research facilities, hiked and snorkeled, and planted native trees for a forest restoration project. She also saw sea lions, marine iguanas, blue-footed booby birds, and more, and even had an up-close encounter with a large group of sea turtles.
“I’m beyond grateful to Sally,” said Kylie, a conservation biology major who hopes to pursue a career helping to protect endangered species around the world. “Without this scholarship, I wouldn’t have been able to experience what life as a conservationist could be like,” she said.
As a child, Sally rarely left Botetourt County but envisioned life outside her small town. Knowing that she’d be the first in her family to attend a four-year school, her high school chemistry teachers, Lorraine Huffman Firestone ’62 and Louise Shick Jargowsky ’68, both Mary Washington alumni, took her to a local college fair to meet an admissions representative from their alma mater.
“From the very beginning, I knew Mary Washington was the right fit for me,” said Sally, who majored in biology with a concentration in environmental science. She also studied dance, served as a resident assistant, and formed close relationships with faculty and friends. “If I could relive any time in my life, I’d go back to college in a heartbeat.”
After graduation, Sally worked within the chemistry field in various positions and raised four children with husband Michael. In her free time, she pursued her passion through local conservation efforts to preserve wildlife and their environments.
Over a decade ago, Sally received a brochure in the mail for the Galápagos Islands Alumni trip and immediately told her husband she wanted to go. “It was everything I wanted to experience,” she said. With Dr. Dolby as their guide, her group came face-to-face with giant tortoises, colorful birds, and marine iguanas camouflaged into the rocks.
Now, because of her scholarship, UMW students who share her passion for conservation can experience these cool creatures themselves. Sally loves to hear their stories, exchanging letters and meeting them whenever she gets the chance.
“The sentiment is always the same; there’s no way I could have gone on this trip without you,” Sally said. “I hope it sparks a love of travel that continues throughout their lives.”
Q: What other UMW Alumni trips have you been on?
A: I traveled to Costa Rica this January, where I saw several active sloths, which is a rare sight because they usually don’t move! While I was there, I was notified that a spot had opened on the Africa trip. In June, I got to see so many magnificent animals roaming free: lions, elephants, zebras, giraffes, baboons, and amazing birds!
Q: What would you say to inspire a fellow alum to create a scholarship?
A: If you have passion for any part of the Mary Washington experience, no amount of money is too small to contribute to the education of current and future students.
Q: What is your favorite spot on campus?
A: Mine is more campus adjacent. I love Mary’s Rock by Kenmore Park. It’s so beautiful and quiet. On campus, I loved my window overlooking Ball Circle when I was an RA in Virginia Hall.
Q: Where are you traveling to next?
A: After I traveled to Africa, I thought it was such an amazing experience but realized there’s so much of the United States I still want to see. However, I’d also like to do volunteer vacationing, specifically working with sea turtles.
To learn more about establishing scholarships, please contact the Office of Advancement at (540) 654-1024 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To find out about upcoming Alumni on the Road trips, please visit the Mary Washington Alumni website.
View more of Sally’s photos from 2023 Mary Washington Alumni on the Road trips to Africa and Costa Rica:
This story originally ran in the Advancing Mary Washington newsletter and was written by Assistant Director of Advancement Communications Jill Graziano Laiacona ’04.