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Senior forward Michelle Nwokedi is equally valuable on and off the floor, earning Ivy League MVP honors on the hardwood and successfully fundraising for her city in the wake of tragedy.

Credit: Zach Sheldon

Hurricane Harvey was a tragedy. 

The storm ravaged Houston, wreaking havoc across the land, killing people, destroying property, isolating families and threatening the fabric of an entire city. 

But Hurricane Harvey also displayed the innate goodness of this nation’s citizens, showcasing our country’s solidarity, bravery, unity and ultimately, heroism. 

Among those heroes was Penn’s very own Michelle Nwokedi. 

Nwokedi, a senior forward on the women’s basketball team, is from just outside of Houston. Considering how profoundly the hurricane impacted those from different parts of the nation, one can only imagine the effect the storm had on a Houstonian like Nwokedi. 

After first watching the news and hearing the stories, Nwokedi felt helpless. Although her family was thankfully safe, she knew that her beloved city and neighbors might not have been so fortunate.  

“I’ve talked to all of the Penn athletes from Houston, and we were all just shocked because, in our lifetimes, nothing like that has ever happened to Houston,” Nwokedi said. “Being in Philly, you kind of feel like you can't do much, like life is still going on, and you’re just stuck here while all of your friends and family deal with this tragedy.” 

For Nwokedi, Houston is more than just her hometown. It’s a part of her, and because of that, she knew that she had to take action. 

“Houston is so important to me, and I knew there had to be something I can do, so I texted coach [Mike McLaughlin] asking him if I could start a GoFundMe.” 

Taking cues from Houston Texans player J.J. Watt, Nwokedi was ambitious when setting her donations goal at $2,500. But, after just two days, the proceeds began to amount quickly, and over half of the goal was met. At that point, Nwokedi knew that $2,500 was plenty doable. 

She and her supportive teammates quickly spread word of the GoFundMe on social media, reaching out across the entire Penn community. 

Nwokedi’s fundraiser exploded past its previously inconceivable $2,500 goal, reaching a whopping $2,820. 

And because the GoFundMe is still open, that total could continue to climb. 

“The success [of the fundraiser] is a testament to the Penn community and how much everybody really cares,” Nwokedi said. “And I could not be more proud or more thankful.”  

Apart from her love for her city, Nwokedi’s major source of inspiration was the aforementioned J.J. Watt. 

Watt, an All-Pro defensive lineman for the Texans, kickstarted one of the most successful fundraising campaigns in recent memory. Hoping at first to raise $200,000, Watt and his donors have accumulated more than 37 million dollars, and Watt, fully embracing his adopted identity as a Houstonian, has undertaken all of the responsibilities that his fundraising has entailed. Through television appearances, heartfelt videos, and dogged determination, Watt, an athlete from Wisconsin, has become the face of the Houston cause. 

For Nwokedi, Watt’s efforts have shown just how much impact an athlete can have. 

“J.J. Watt showed that football players or even basketball players are not just football players and basketball players,” Nwokedi said. “Seeing J.J. Watt, a guy not actually from Houston but a guy who plays there, go out of his way not just for face. He did the work, and he was genuine. To see how much of an impact he had, to see how much of an impact athletes can have, I was happy just to do the little that I could do.”  

Maybe compared to Watt’s totals, Nwokedi’s donations can seem “little,” but in reality, what Nwokedi was able to do for her city was plenty inspiring.

“I’m from Houston,” Nwokedi said. “That’s something I’ve probably said a thousand times. It’s one of the very first things I say when meeting new people or describing myself. Houston is part of who I am, so I knew I had to help.”