Student project leads to free period products in 9 campus buildings

Three women by Visual Voices board


A project started by three students in the Graduate School of Public Health has resulted in a significant change on Pitt’s Oakland campus that occurred at a speed rarely seen for most initiatives at the University.

The three women — Kathleen Koesarie, Samantha Totoni and Lauren Risser — first proposed putting free menstrual products in Pitt bathrooms in the spring of this year, and by early October the dispensers had been installed in bathrooms in nine academic buildings and several residence halls, according to Facilities Management.


The free dispensers can be found in the following academic buildings:

  • Trees Hall
  • William Pitt Union
  • Hillman Library
  • Posvar Hall
  • Cathedral of Learning
  • Langley Hall
  • Alumni Hall
  • Chevron Science Building
  • Benedum Hall

“I talk about these three young women a lot, because I'm really proud of them,” said Martha Terry, associate professor, Behavioral and Community Health Sciences. “They have brought about change in a very short amount of time at an institution that is slow to change. They are role models for exactly what we want our students to be doing, which is committing to an issue and doing everything they can do to address that issue.”

Jessica Burke, associate dean for education, in the Graduate School of Public Health, said the terminology and language around menstruation has been changing. “It's not just a woman’s period or a period, but it's menstrual health. And so that term is important. It's not just menstrual hygiene, either, but that we're sort of thinking about all of the issues connected to menstruation. And I think it’s past time (for that).”

It was in two of Terry’s classes that the idea first took root. In fall 2018, Totoni, now in her final year of the masters of public health program, was in the Introduction to Community Health class, during which Terry asked students to tour the entire Public Health building and come back with their observations, and Totoni noticed there were no hygiene products in the bathrooms.

When Koesarie, a third-year med student who completed her masters of public health last year, and Risser, also in her final year of the masters program heard about this the next semester, they thought maybe it was just bad luck — the supplies had just run out. But soon they had partnered with Totoni to look deeper into the problem and found the dispensers hadn’t been filled for a long time.

Some of the reasons they were told the machines were no longer being stocked were concern about expiration of the products (which, by the way, isn’t an issue unless they’re stored in a damp area) and possible vandalism to retrieve the coins. “Which is really interesting, because our entire movement and doing this was to make sure that we asked for free products, because nobody carries quarters anymore,” Koesarie said.

They decided to start small by introducing free products in bathrooms in the Graduate School of Public Health, which has 73 percent female population. The dean’s office agreed to pay for the supplies from a company out of Ohio, Aunt Flo, and the three women installed the dispensers and are continuing to restock them.

They monitored their use so they would have hard data for arguing their case for free supplies all over campus. “We learned a lot about bathroom politics and bathroom expenses and bathroom, everything,” Koesarie said.

At the same time, they conducted at Visual Voices project — “Your Stories, Period.” — to collect all the issues women face when dealing with their periods. They set up in the lobby of the school and heard from undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff members.

The issues raised showed the impact on people who must leave class or work to get period supplies, which could be avoided if the bathrooms carried the products. “I was shocked at how many stories we had. Because I think this is something that menstruaters don't talk about, because you think it's just a you problem,” Koesarie said.

Some of the comments included:

  • “The most common yet unspoken similarities we share as women are the untold stories of our periods. Bonded together by the toilet paper balls and sanitary supplies across the globe knowing that rushing feeling of something creeping of the inside, only to reach the restroom and ... supplies are nonexistent.”
  • “My girlfriend got hers unexpectedly and used a sock to absorb the blood.”
  • “My boyfriend thought I could just hold it in.”
  • “Sometimes I get stuck in the lab with a long experiment, and while I try to plan ahead, I sometimes can’t run across the street to buy a pack of pads. I end up having to use toilet paper every once in a while. I end up using too much mental energy worrying if my toilet paper pad will hold and it can distract from my work.”

They used these comments to create a board they could take around to administration officials when they were asking for period products to be provided. “For me, I think that this is a great example of the power of bringing people's voices to people in power. And that goes back to this this Visual Voices-inspired project that we did,” Totoni said.

When they met with Facilities Management, they were first intimidated by having to explain the issues to several middle-aged men, but were surprised to find a receptive audience. One of the Facilities officials said his daughter had gotten in trouble at school because she left to go get period products.

The newly installed dispensers look just like the ones that took quarters, but no money is required.

Koesarie, Totoni and Risser are still restocking the Aunt Flo dispensers in Public Health, but hope to get Facilities to take over there too. They’re also taking the fight for period health to the next level.

On Oct. 22, the three women went to Harrisburg to discuss the issues of menstrual hygiene and period poverty. They are working with Rep. Sara Innamorato, of the 21st District in Allegheny County, on a bill requiring free period supplies in all middle and high schools and public colleges in the state.

“I think in public health, we talk about talking to your representatives and advocating for health issue. But actually having an opportunity to do that, it's really shown me that I can do that,” Risser said. “It's not just a thing that other people can do. Anyone can go meet with their representatives and advocate for something that they're passionate about.”

They’ve also worked with local groups Sister Friends, which helps provide supplies to all women so they can hygienically manage their menstruation wherever they are, and Days for Girls, which prepares and distributes sustainable menstrual health solutions to girls who would otherwise miss school during their monthly periods.

Risser said she was talking to a woman who works for Operation Safety Net, which helps the homeless, and she recounted being approached repeatedly by women on the street who need tampons or pads.

“I think a lot of times, it's easy to think this is a problem somewhere else,” Risser said. “And I think we need to remember it's a problem here too, because there's still places where women can't go to religious services when they have their periods. And it's so easy to write it off as a problem somewhere far away. Then you think about the fact that even here it's a barrier to women’s education.”

Associate Dean Burke has nothing but praise for Koesarie, Totoni and Risser.

“I love that these students took what they were learning about in class and put it into practice,” she said. “They used the Visual Voices method that they learned about in class in terms of creating this visual display of experiences, they designed and implemented a pilot project, they learned a lot about research methods and evaluation, and they did all of those pieces. And that it worked to really implement change is awesome.”

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at or 412-648-4294.


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