Ralph Hall dwells in a world of possibility. He brings an over-flowing optimism to teaching and research. And he must be doing something right because two of his students will receive top awards this month at Virginia Tech.

  • Nneoma Nwankwo will be recognized as Virginia Tech’s 2016 Undergraduate Student of the Year
  • Yehyun “Hannah” An will receive the 2016 Outstanding Dissertation Award in the “Social Science, Business, Education, and Humanities” category.

What can we learn from Hall, Nwankwo, and An’s achievements?


Encouraging Students to Follow Their Passions

Hall credits much of this success to the culture of the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA), where he teaches and conducts research.

“At the doctoral level, we don’t have the constraints that many programs have,” he says. “We have a limited set of core classes, after which I expect students to craft their own research agenda. I see my role as challenging them to find and pursue the difficult and interesting questions that have significant social impacts. Once they have a good idea, we then start the process of shaping it into a manageable research project.”

Hall encourages his students not to limit the scope of their research to his core research areas. Instead, students are asked what they are interested in and what makes them tick. He then sees his role as pursuing the funding or other support structures to make those ideas real.

“It’s like fueling the fire,” he says. “We find the spark that gets a student motivated and we keep fueling that spark until it catches alight.”

Unfortunately, this process is not as easy as lighting a fire. Hall describes many situations where SPIA’s director Anne Khademian and the school’s support staff have worked diligently to ensure students are able to pursue their research interests internationally or in a national research laboratory. “I cannot overstate the importance of having a team of people who are dedicated to the success of our students,” Hall says.


Removing Barriers for Young Women to Study in Nigeria and Beyond

Nneoma Nwankwo and Ralph Hall - Undergraduate Student of the Year Virginia Tech 2016“I passed through Virginia Tech, and Virginia Tech passed through me.” – Nneoma Nwankwo

A great example of how SPIA cultivates outstanding students is the story of Nneoma Nwankwo. She will be honored with the 2016 Undergraduate Student of the Year award, out of more than 4000 graduating seniors.

Hall and Nwankwo first collaborated when he supervised her independent study on the WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) challenges facing the Makoko community in Lagos, Nigeria – a slum consisting of bamboo houses. Nneoma studied how a lack of facilities becomes a significant barrier to education for young women once menstruation begins. She carefully researched this woefully-understudied subject and developed an impressive and successful portfolio for the Cloyd Fellowship for Social Justice, which she received in 2014. Nneoma focused on advancing the subject of menstrual hygiene management in schools in Nigeria. Her initial research involved undertaking fieldwork in Makoko and Yaba, Nigeria, where she interviewed young women. She also led a series of workshops for 33 primary and secondary school students.

Nneoma shared her research with UN Women and WSSCC. After receiving approval from both organizations, she was invited to engage in their Joint Programme Trainings in Niamey, Niger where she studied how policy makers can be made more sensitive to MHM issues.

Nneoma taught about menstrual hygiene management in Hall’s course on water supply and sanitation in developing countries. She is the only undergraduate student who has ever taught in one of Hall’s graduate courses.


Building Stronger Infrastructure in India

RalphHannah_croppedAnother SPIA student who was advised by Hall is Dr. Yehyun An. Her dissertation was selected by a faculty review committee to receive the 2016 Outstanding Dissertation Award in the “Social Science, Business, Education, and Humanities” category.

Yehyun’s doctoral research began with a summer internship at the Asian Development Bank (ADB), where she prepared a report on the human resource gap in the renewable energy sector in India. This research inspired a proposal to create an International Program for Sustainable Infrastructure Development that was funded by the Obama-Singh 21st Century Knowledge Initiative. This program is a partnership between faculty at Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur (IITK) and Virginia Tech (VT). The IITK-VT partnership was created to help develop the next generation of infrastructure professionals and was the vehicle that enabled Yehyun to undertake her doctoral research.

Yehyun’s research investigated capacity development in India where she explored the relationship between capacity factors and the implementation of a major urban infrastructure investment program in India – the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM).

In addition to Yehyun’s qualitative research that included an extensive set of interviews with 84 project managers and engineers in five states in India, she also used qualitative comparative analysis (QCA) to evaluate the projects undertaken as part of the JNNURM. Yehyun’s research is methodologically rigorous and is believed to be the first application of QCA in the field of capacity development.

Yehyun’s practical recommendations for how capacity could be developed in the urban sector in India are likely to be of significant value to the Indian government, which is planning to invest immense resources in urban infrastructure over the next decade.


Creating a New Type of Global Citizen

When Ralph Hall talks about his students, his joy is evident. He believes that SPIA is enabling a successful model for the future.

“When students leave, they have a very unique and interdisciplinary skill set,” he says. “They are their own creation and progressive employers are likely to jump on what they can offer.”

Congratulations to Nneoma and Yehyun for advancing a model of scholarship that is built on students’ passion and which reflects the ambition of Virginia Tech to become a Global Land Grant institution.