Growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, Virginia Tech senior Nneoma Nwankwo recalled that many girls would skip up to a week of class because of menstrual needs.

“I never thought of it as an issue at the time, but more of just something that happened,” said Nwankwo, a political science major in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. “When I started thinking about it and researching it, I found that the effects of poor menstrual health can really hinder education. Hindering education is hindering socio-economic empowerment. There’s a whole downstream effect to these things.”

Thanks to a unique fellowship through the University Honors program at Virginia Tech, Nwankwo was able to travel to her home country and study the management of menstrual health first hand.

Nwankwo was the 2014 recipient of the Austin Michelle Cloyd Fellowship, one of six Odyssey Fellowships offered through the University Honors program. Applicants propose service-oriented projects. The scholarship requires students to take two trips – one for planning and one for implementation – and covers costs for travel, project supplies, and other expenses.

During her junior year, Nwankwo interned for 10 days with Action Health Incorporated, an organization in Lagos, aggressively planning for what would become her service project the following summer.

This summer, she lived in Niger to work with the Ministry of Sanitation, the Water Supply Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), and other groups.

“The WSSCC has this joint program to train policymakers or delegates on menstrual health management. It includes how to make sure it is being taught in schools and how to make sure that governments are taking it seriously but sensitively,” Nwankwo said. “It’s a very broad scope, but looks from the perspective of people that can actually do something about it.”

After staying in Niger for two-and-a-half weeks, she traveled back to Lagos, where she spent eight weeks surveying and sampling women about menstrual health management.

Nwankwo developed a multi-approach theory to deal with menstrual health management, including investment and implementation of best practices.

“That’s the thing with social justice issues – there is no one solution,” Nwankwo said.

Now that she is back in Blacksburg, Nwankwo has been asked to present for multiple departments and programs across campus regarding her work during the fellowship. She also is carrying out the final responsibility of being an Odyssey Scholar, which requires that she sit in on the board of interviewers for current and future applicants.

“It’s definitely exciting to see the diversity of things that people will think about,” Nwankwo said about some of the applicants she has met. “It can be something like tourism, and it can be related back to social justice. You can see the literal connection in a new way that you would have never expected.”

As she prepares to graduate in May, Nwankwo gives credit to the Cloyd Fellowship for much of her motivation and success.

“This was the scholarship that I felt I would get the most out of. There is something about requiring the two trips that felt more in depth,” Nwankwo said. “The person it was named after, Austin Michelle Cloyd, I felt really connected to her story and the scholarship," Cloyd died on April 16, 2007, in the shootings at Norris Hall. "I wanted to participate in honoring what she stood for. Overall, it definitely had an impact in terms of solidifying my goals – not so much changing them.”

Nwankwo is currently a Virginia Tech candidate for the Schwarzman Scholarship. This new international award brings scholars from across the globe to Beijing, China, to study for a one-year master’s degree at Tsinghua University to prepare to tackle global challenges.

Written by Leslie McCrea, a senior majoring in multimedia journalism in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.