When it comes to basketball, Ashley Owusu never has been afraid to roll up her sleeves and get to work.

But these days, the Virginia Tech women’s basketball standout is encouraging teammates, students, friends, and those in the local community to roll up their sleeves for a different and more important reason.

Owusu serves as an ambassador for the American Red Cross, an organization primarily known for collecting blood to be used in medical facilities throughout the world. January is National Blood Donation Month, and Owusu is using her platform as a college athlete by sharing her story in a video promoting the importance of giving blood.

“I've always known what the Red Cross was about — donating blood — but I never really knew how much of an impact blood donors can have and how important it is,” Owusu said. “So I thought it was pretty cool, especially with the story.”

“The story” took place last year when Owusu competed as a women’s basketball player at the University of Maryland before transferring to Virginia Tech. Toward the end of the season, she felt poorly and extremely fatigued.

Maryland participated in the NCAA Women’s Tournament last March and played Stanford in a Sweet 16 matchup in Spokane, Washington. The team left several days in advance of the game, and while there, Owusu’s symptoms grew worse.

“I started feeling sick, was sleeping a lot, wasn't really eating, and then after we lost to Stanford, I got home, and I was feeling a lot worse, Owusu said. “I was super sick, had a temperature, wasn’t eating and my throat was swollen, and my parents took me to the hospital.”

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The doctors ultimately diagnosed her with mononucleosis, a virus that often leads to extreme fatigue. Tests revealed Owusu’s hemoglobin levels (iron) in her blood to be dangerously low, and doctors ordered a blood transfusion.

Usually, one blood transfusion takes care of iron-deficiency anemia, an condition in which blood lacks the healthy red blood cells needed to carry oxygen throughout the body. Owusu’s iron levels fell so low that she needed eight.

The Woodbridge, Virginia, native, who transferred to Virginia Tech over the summer and is pursuing a degree in religion and culture, is convinced that the blood transfusions saved her life. That motivated her to get involved with the American Red Cross.

“I always knew what it was, but I never really looked into, never really donated blood,” Owusu said. “Once that [her sickness] happened, I just got more serious about it. During that time, my aunt had actually told me there was a shortage of blood donations, so I thought it'd be pretty cool to try to shine some light on it.”

Camera crew works to get a video of Ashley Owusu
A camera crew came to Blacksburg to get video of Ashley Owusu and to capture her story on why she wanted to be an ambassador for the American Red Cross. Photo by Lee Friesland for Virginia Tech.

Owusu, her parents, and the person who handles her name, image, and likeness (NIL) opportunities – NIL is a policy that allows college athletes to make money off sponsorships without repercussions from the NCAA – reached out to the American Red Cross about helping with the organization’s promotional efforts.

Organization officials listened to her story and were eager for her help. They put together a story about Owusu for the Red Cross website and a video about her for its YouTube channel.

“The stories of why blood donation is so important for people like Ashley are the reasons why people choose to donate,” said Jonathan McNamara, communications director for American Red Cross of Virginia. “Her willingness to share her story and to be a public advocate on this topic is vital to us being able reach new donors and hopefully inspire them to roll up their sleeve and give. It’s incredibly helpful to the organization and something we’re grateful for, both the opportunity we had to work with her and hopefully the opportunities we’ll have to work with her in the future.”

Both sides hope to continue the relationship going forward. Owusu, a former All-American at Maryland already brings name recognition to the topic with her status as a college athlete. That name recognition could expand if she eventually plays professional basketball in the WNBA, which, in turn, could benefit the American Red Cross.

“The more she has her name out there in the community, the more potential she has of expanding her audience,” McNamara said. “And we’re always grateful to introduce our story to audiences not only throughout Virginia, but across the country. Ashley’s role in that is one that we see as very important in the months and years to come.”

For now, Owusu’s focus remains more local as she spotlights the American Red Cross’ efforts to the campus community. College populations tend to give blood more frequently, and Virginia Tech always has been involved with the organization’s efforts, hosting blood drives throughout the academic year.

Owusu wants to see those efforts continue. Her message to students is simple.

“Just look into it,” Owusu said. “I know some people may have a fear of seeing blood and stuff like that, but I think donating blood is a lot more important than we might think. And I think it can save people's lives in an instance. So just look into it and take it seriously.”

Owusu said she will help in any way possible, though she won’t be participating in National Blood Donation Month. Tech’s sports medicine staff wants her to wait until after the basketball season. Her past medical history and the basketball team’s combination of practices and games lead all parties to be cautious.

Owusu understands that and accepts it. She said she will wait until after the season.

At that point, she’ll be more than ready to roll up her sleeve for her passionate cause.

Written by Jimmy Robertson