Family Heritage, OWU Connection, and Global Impact
Fiji's “Most Outstanding Senior” in the North America, Memme Onwudiwe ’15, Turned an Internship in Nigeria into a Career That Is Already Making a Difference.
Of Nigerian and Ghanaian roots, but born in Xenia and raised in Centerville, OH, Memme Onwudiwe ’15 traveled only about 90 miles from home to attend Ohio Wesleyan. But the distance this recent grad has traveled since arriving on campus in fall 2011—and the difference he has made—tell a striking story.
An international studies and French double major and summa cum laude graduate, Onwudiwe was a familiar face to many (if not most) people around campus when he was a student. His involvement in organizations ranging from student government to Big Brothers Big Sisters mentoring program, and Greek life to President’s Club, made him an influential member of the OWU community.
In his sophomore year, Onwudiwe joined Phi Gamma Delta (Fiji) when it returned to campus. He worked hard to revitalize the chapter, helping to create and co-chair a new Fiji health committee, develop the OWU chapter’s website, and serve as captain for three seasons of Fiji’s intramural soccer team.
Academically, he took full advantage of The OWU Connection, securing internships that allowed him to travel to his family’s ancestral homeland in Nigeria to learn more about the country’s electoral processes and energy production transactions.
Eventually, all these efforts helped earn him the national fraternity’s prestigious Wilkinson Award as Fiji’s “most outstanding senior” in North America. The recipient is chosen from among 142 Fiji chapters and 13 colonies in the United States and Canada. The award is especially meaningful at OWU because it is named in honor of Cecil J. “Scoop” Wilkinson, OWU Class of 1917, Fiji’s first executive secretary and editor of The Phi Gamma Delta magazine for 36 years (see “Scoop”, page 20).
Paired with his recognition as a Meek Leadership Award winner, it’s easy to see that Onwudiwe set his sights high.
Onwudiwe’s interests and energy far surpassed the boundaries of Delaware and the campus community that he loves. During his four years at OWU, he completed an internship with the Independent National Electoral Commission in Abuja, Nigeria, helping to oversee the electoral process in the country, and also interned for Development Finance International, Inc., a business advisory firm in Bethesda, MD, that focuses on emerging markets.
A Transformative Summer
With a global-minded perspective at his core, Onwudiwe has expanded his leadership activities since his graduation in May 2015. Only weeks later, Onwudiwe was back in Nigeria, this time under sponsorship of the Jan W. Baran ’70 and Kathryn K. Baran Endowed Fund for Encouragement of Post-Graduate Fellowships, a program that links classroom theory to real-world experiences.
For Onwudiwe, Nigeria was the clear place to start. During his internship at Development Finance International, he was exposed to new insights on Nigeria’s oil and gas industry, and he decided to use them as the foundation for an independent research project on public policy around Nigeria’s use of and payment for oil and gas.
The Baran Fellowship was a key first step toward making this pursuit a reality.
“When I heard about the Baran Fellowship, I knew just what I wanted to do,” says Onwudiwe. He spent the summer of 2015 as a research fellow at Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI), an organization focused on building a framework for transparency in Nigeria’s use of and payment for oil and gas. What proved to be a formative and important summer for Onwudiwe was also in some ways a homecoming, as he stayed with his father, who lives in Nigeria.
At NEITI, Onwudiwe’s research focused on the role that stronger civil society organizations (CSOs) could play in creating policies for transparency in the Nigerian oil and gas industry. According to NEITI, a civil society organization is defined as a non-governmental organization, primarily involved in advocacy for free, equitable, and better society.
“Each year, NEITI audits the oil and gas industry and reports back to the government on issues that it finds, but policy changes rarely happen as a result,” Onwudiwe explains. “At the end of the day, it seems that you can’t just tell the government what is wrong or what to do—pressure is needed from the people.” Could a stronger voice from civil society organizations make a difference? Onwudiwe spent the summer beginning to unpack this question.
“I spent a lot of time exploring relationships,” Onwudiwe reflects. “I interviewed CSOs, the NEITI Civil Society Steering Committee, global development banks, and international organizations that support civil society in Nigeria. I examined overall roadblocks and problems and how they came to be.” While Onwudiwe’s research was highly independent, he was embraced by the community at NEITI and frequently invited to events, discussions, and roundtables.
“Everyone was really interested in my research,” he recalls. “The culture there was very transparent, and even the executive director engaged me. Many people were willing to sit down with me and share the story of what they were trying to accomplish.”
Partially inspired by his heritage, Onwudiwe sees a bigger picture to his research. “Ghana just recently discovered oil reserves,” he points out, “and I want to use my research in Nigeria to help Ghana as they potentially experience the same issues moving forward.”
A Future of Possibilities
Onwudiwe now has his sights set on a law degree, and he completed the LSAT entrance exam in October.
Onwudiwe laughs, remembering his first months as a freshman at OWU. “I never pictured myself winning any type of award. But then I was given the Most Outstanding Freshman Award, and I started to realize that Ohio Wesleyan was a place that believed in me. They boosted me, they recognized me, and they encouraged me to aim for higher and higher things. That’s why I am where I am today.”
To Onwudiwe, the Baran Fellowship is yet another way the OWU community continues to encourage and support him, even beyond his days on campus.
“I don’t know for sure what the future will hold,” he says.
“From law school, the possibilities are endless. But I do know that OWU has been willing to give me this chance, to invest in me, to take a risk on me, and to say, ‘We think you’re worth it.’ That’s all the confidence I need to go forward from here.”
Amanda Zechiel-Keiber ’09 is Class Notes editor of OWU Magazine.