Nneoma Nwankwo: From chickenpox to Undergraduate Student of the Year

Nneoma Nwankwo hasn’t received her American driver’s license yet. Instead, at 16, she spent her gap year helping her mom plan a gender policy dialogue with the World Bank, working at her uncle’s advertising firm, and sitting in on her mom’s Oxfam meetings in Nasarawa and in Jos, Nigeria — both far northeast of her hometown of Lagos, Nigeria.

By 2012, she was, unsurprisingly, accepted to Virginia Tech.

Nwankwo graduated in May 2016 from Virginia Tech with Honors and a degree in political science along with minors in creative writing and public and urban affairs. In four years, Nwankwo accomplished so much she was recognized as the Undergraduate Student of the Year, the most prestigious honor awarded to one graduating senior each year.

And yet, as a freshman transplanted over a 15-hour plane ride away from home and just starting out in the fall of 2012, Nwankwo wasn’t so sure she’d make it to a Lane Stadium graduation.Her very first week of freshman year, she caught chicken pox.

“I was like, ‘okay, you know what, if I have to get chicken pox my first week here, it's a clear indication that I'm not supposed to be here, and I don't like to disobey God, so I'm ready to leave,” Nwankwo said. She talks with a slight and seemingly unplaceable accent, no doubt influenced by the five languages she’s conversant in: English, Igbo, French, Yoruba, and Nigerian Pidgin.

Nwankwo even went so far as applying to transfer to Cornell University. She was accepted, but she changed her mind and opted to go all in during her time at Virginia Tech instead.

She laughs about this now, years removed from being so sick she had to have friends she met during summer orientation bring her food from the dining halls. While she tells me this, she lounges on her bed comfortably in her room, decorated with trinkets from her world travels.

It’s where she prefers to be — in the comfort of air conditioning.

“I hate being outside my house,” she says, laughing but genuine about her distaste for the outdoors, something she can’t exactly avoid living in Southwest Virginia. She prefers sprawling cities, in part due to her childhood in Lagos, a populous, thriving port city that acts as Nigeria’s economic heartbeat, generating about a quarter of the country’s GDP.

And yet, Nwankwo recognizes that not all is well in her home country.

"There are a lot of things that are right with a lot of other places in the world that get a lot of research. And there are a lot of things that are wrong at home [in Nigeria] that do not get addressed,” she explains.

“So I feel like, just being in a privileged position ... it's my duty to make sure it goes back home. You contribute to solutions, otherwise you're contributing to brain drain."

For Nwankwo, this isn’t something she says, it’s something she does. Her time at Virginia Tech was seemingly structured around this philosophy, and it was when Nneoma turned to the Virginia Tech Honors College that she was able to put the philosophy in action.

As she was searching for opportunities that aligned with her interests in women’s rights, public health, and clean water, she found the Austin Michelle Cloyd Fellowship for Social Justice.

She applied to Honors to pursue the fellowship, and soon set to work planning a service-oriented project promoting social justice. Through persistence, she eventually found an advisor for the fellowship in Ralph Hall, an associate professor in the Urban Affairs and Planning program.

Hall helped Nwankwo shape her project by pointing her toward menstrual hygiene management, a field that combined her interests and had a personal connection for Nwankwo.

“I started to think back on my own experiences,” Nwankwo said of growing up in Nigeria. “When I was in primary school ... there were girls there who I would recall would just not be in class for like, three, four days — and this is like, age nine, ten, eleven, twelve."

Out of all the potential areas Nwankwo could have pursued through the fellowship, menstrual hygiene management “was the one where a light bulb went off,” Hall recalls. “She said, ‘well, I had an easy life. I didn't have any appreciation for the problems that young women have in my own country with this issue.' And that realization became the motivation behind everything she did.”

That winter break, during her sophomore year, she went back home to Nigeria and did field research for her application, having decided she wanted to design a study on menstrual health management in West Africa.

Nwankwo visited a school in her ancestral village in the eastern part of Nigeria. She spoke with the headmistress of the school, who told Nwankwo that they often had to send girls home when they had their periods. Nwankwo toured the school and examined the bathroom facilities, which she recalls were “basically nonexistent.”

In the spring of 2014, she won the fellowship.

Photo of Nneoma Nwankwo walking outside of hillcrest hall

Since it required preparatory work before her junior year even began, Nwankwo was on a plane just two days after her summer internship at Goldman Sachs ended.

She came back to Blacksburg that fall with malaria, which she insisted was nothing to worry about. “It's not like a death sentence. It's kind of like getting the flu," she says, shrugging it off.

Malaria and all, Nwankwo jumped into her research, delving into the beginnings of an Honors thesis in which she assessed the existing education gap between southern and northern Nigeria and giving presentations on her fellowship work.

“Talking about menstrual hygiene management in front of 50 people you don't know is not an easy thing to do,” Hall said. “But she has a way of clearly stating the facts, and then adding her own insights and experiences to the subject matter, which really enables people to feel more comfortable talking about what, in many cultures, is a taboo subject.”

She also continued her involvement in the African Students Association, worked at the Writing Center in the library, and wrote poetry, earning an honorable mention in the Steger Poetry Prize competition.

As she pursued her creative writing minor, Nwankwo worked closely with Lucinda Roy, a University Distinguished Professor in the English department.

“She was always so excited to learn new things, and so deeply curious. It was never a superficial kind of curiosity. It was a bone-deep kind of curiosity. And she'll have that all her life, I think,” Roy said.

But more than that, Roy said, she has a keen understanding of her audience.

“One of the remarkable things I think about her is work is that, she is, of course, from West Africa, and she's writing cross-culturally therefore, because most of her audience, in this country anyway, are American. So she has that extra hurdle to get across to try to make sure that what she's communicating is accessible to her audience.

“But she has this instinctive ability to understand what somebody else's point of view would be. She's able to take hold of that and imagine what it's like for the reader,” Roy said.

Nwankwo also began to write articles for Virginia Tech’s student newspaper, the Collegiate Times, profiling international students, which she said she did because she felt there is a “disconnect between America and the rest of the world — by America's choice.”

“I don't think it's my responsibility to educate the populace on other countries,” she explained. “I just thought it was important to have people get a feel for where the guy with the accent in your class is from, what things are important to him regarding his country, stuff like that.”

The summer after her junior year, she was back in West Africa, first in the Republic of Niger, where she participated in the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council and United Nations Women menstrual hygiene trainings.

Next, she ventured to Makoko, a fishing village in Lagos, where the women were not in “any clear box.” They were not necessarily in school or sanitary environments; many were traders. She conducted focus groups and wrestled with the question of how to bring menstrual hygiene management to these women.

Since graduating, Nwankwo has moved to New York City, where she works at Citibank as a global consumer bank diversity and strategy analyst. She’s keeping her eye on developments in menstrual hygiene management and searching for avenues to continue the work she started at Virginia Tech.

For now, she’s settling into her new home and the excitement of city life, far removed from the mountains of Blacksburg. Those she leaves behind at Tech, like Hall, are rooting for her.

“I expect her to go on to a very interesting career,” he said. “She was able to invent her own life here, and that's really important.”

Written by: Erica Corder