Every year Chapman recognizes alumni who have succeeded exceptionally in their respective fields. René Bennett (Political Science: International Relations BA ‘05, minor in Economics and Honors) in Wilkinson College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences is the Distinguished Alumni Award recipient for 2021.

Bennett, according to Political Science Professor Ronald Steiner,  is “a real role model for students and an embodiment of the Chapman ideal. She used her time as a student to truly engage with the world, both in her classes and in internships both at home and abroad, and then built on that foundation to pursue a career devoted to making life better for people in need.” For these reasons, Dr. Steiner nominated Bennett for the award and was thrilled when she was selected as the recipient.

“Please know: in the pursuit of doing what you love, you will fail. You will fall. That is part of the process. And you will get stronger as long as you pick yourself up,” said Bennett. 

René Bennett ‘05, Distinguished Alumni Award recipient for 2021.

Bennett looks back on her time at Chapman fondly, sharing that Wilkinson College prepared her by supporting her unorthodox college experience: “I was off-campus for long periods of time, interning and learning in different parts of the world. My professors, particularly Dr. Steiner and the late Don Will, were always supportive and encouraging…I wouldn’t be here without the professors who shined lights on the paths I couldn’t see.”

Today Bennett is the Director of Government Affairs at Gilead Sciences, Inc., where she leads a health equity initiative for HIV, hepatitis, and infectious disease testing, diagnosis, and linkage to care. She works with a variety of groups to address infectious diseases, including frontline health care leaders, elected officials, and health agencies on the federal, state, and local levels, such as The Centers for Disease Control, The Department of Health and Human Services, and Health Resources and Services Administration. “At the end of the day, my job is to help coordinate between health organizations who should be talking to each other, but don’t, to help ensure that more people with infectious diseases are tested and linked to appropriate medical care,” said Bennett. Prior to her current role, she was the Managing Attorney at the Center for HIV Law and Policy, where she specialized in HIV criminalization and sexual health care rights for youth in state custody.

Bennett says her career path was not precalculated but was instead “driven by a stubborn presence of purpose and passion.” During her undergraduate years at Chapman, Bennett pursued several internships related to her intellectual curiosity about HIV. She interned at UNAIDS in Geneva, worked as a lobbyist in DC on the President’s Emergency Plan for HIV/AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), and interned locally at an AIDS service organization. The summer before her senior year, Bennett participated in a program in South Africa that allowed her to study how HIV advocates successfully sued the South African government to ensure treatment access for people living with HIV/AIDS. That experience inspired her to take the LSAT and attend Tulane Law School to learn to advocate for people living with HIV in court. She professes that the “saving grace” in her personal and professional life has always been “knowing what [she is] passionate about and following that passion.”

Bennett’s advice to students for a joyous and rewarding life and career is as follows: “be curious, aim for the impossible, meet everyone, be kind, talk (really talk) to your professors/mentors, and have a wonderful time on the journey.  Follow your gut. Work hard. Nothing worth anything ever came without a strategy and plenty of work.”

Join us to hear Bennett speak on Wednesday, March 9, 2022, 2:30 – 4:30 p.m. in Argyros Forum 209 B, in a lecture titled Making a Difference with Your Degree: Addressing Health Inequities. Learn more!