Alumna offers tributes through new UMW scholarships.
Catherine Elwell ’73 turned her penchant for languages into a course of study, a successful career with the International Monetary Fund, and a life filled with travel and adventure.
It all started in rural Illinois where Cathy says her mom and dad were just two farm kids with high aspirations for themselves and their family. After service in the military, Cathy’s dad attended the University of Illinois through the GI Bill. “I remember we often had international students over to the house,” says Cathy. “I knew at a young age, that I had one gift, and that gift was foreign languages.”
In 1966, Cathy’s family moved 800 miles east to Springfield, Virginia, where her dad commuted to D.C. to work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmer’s Home Administration (FHA). Her mom was fully engaged in guiding Cathy and her three brothers through life and school, and was quick to volunteer in the community as needed.
Cathy continued saving her nickels and dimes for college and soon began considering her choices. “Mary Washington was in-state, had a strong modern foreign language department, and a number of possibilities to study abroad,” says Cathy.
So, Cathy arrived on campus with plans to major in French. During her four years at Mary Washington, she also found herself drawn to theater, and soon was able to combine many of her interests into an unforgettable three-semester study abroad experience in France.
“This past June was the 50-year anniversary of my first arrival in Paris,” says Cathy. “I loved living in the center of Paris and tried to organize as many ‘dirt-cheap’ excursions as possible. I went to Italy, Scandanavia, the U.K., and more, but I always focused on my academics because I wanted my credits to count so I could graduate when I returned home.”
Cathy remembers one very exciting moment in Paris when she was stirring a pot on the stove in a cooking class, and in through the door walked a tall, striking woman everyone now knows as Julia Child.
A few years earlier, Cathy’s suitemate, Patricia Mavine Sauls ’71, had suggested Cathy consider applying at the International Monetary Fund (IMF). “When I returned from Paris, I was oozing with confidence,” says Cathy. “I knew my French and I was ready. I applied in the spring of 1973, was hired, graduated from Mary Washington in May, and walked into the door of IMF that June.”
During the next 35 years, Cathy supported IMF economists in a variety of roles and says she traveled on more than 30 missions to nearly all the French-speaking countries in Africa, the Comoros Islands and Madagascar in the Indian Ocean region, and parts of Asia.
“Once I got into this job track, I liked it so much that I could have done it forever,” says Cathy. “It was a daily thrill to be able to speak, read, write, edit, and translate in French while interacting with a staff representing over 100 different nationalities. I truly put my studies at MWC and at La Sorbonne at the University of Paris, to full use every day.”
Following the passing of her mom in 2020 at the age of 92, Cathy began examining her own estate plans. “I became aware that I am living the life that some of my female ancestors could only dream of,” says Cathy. “This includes higher education; my own income and with it, economic independence; interesting professional work; the ability to travel the world; and the privilege of living in an interesting environment.”
To honor those who came before her and one special friend who offered great advice, Cathy is planning to create two scholarships at Mary Washington. She will establish a study abroad scholarship in memory of her parents, Bernice and L.D. Elwell, Jr., as well as a UMW theater scholarship in honor of her suitemate, Patty Sauls.
“I truly have been blessed,” says Cathy. “Everything I see out my window and everything I touch is a product of where I came from and the choices I made. This is my legacy.”
For more information about bequests or designating Mary Washington as a beneficiary of your retirement or banking accounts, contact Jan Clarke at firstname.lastname@example.org or 540-654-2064.