FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. - "The world cares nothing about your street cred or your fashion sense. They only care about what's between your ears."
You'll hear Celia Anderson use that phrase a lot when speaking to students across the country. The former Arkansas women's basketball player (1998-2001) turned author often uses her platform as a former athlete to speak to kids nationwide about the importance of education, reading and goal-setting.
Anderson played for the Razorbacks during one of the most successful stretches in program history. In her freshman season of 1998, Arkansas advanced to the NCAA Final Four. In her sophomore season, her team claimed the Women's National Invitation Tournament. But more importantly, Anderson was a decorated scholar who was named to the Southeastern Conference's Academic Honor Roll three consecutive years and is now also pursuing a career in higher education.
"These kids may be in an environment now where they think their clothes or how cool they are matters, but once you get in the real world, people only care about what is between your ears," Anderson said. "That knowledge is the only true measurement of success. If you don't have that, then what do you do? I tell them that basketball was great. But those trophies and rings over the years have lost their shine and they're collecting dust. That degree that basketball helped pay for is still working for me today."
When it came to material things, the young Anderson had very little. Stability was questionable early on, as she attended 12 different elementary schools.
But no matter where she went, she always found comfort in books.
"I always had an awkward time fitting in," Anderson said. "I was just always studious. I loved to read and I loved to learn. I don't recall at any of those schools anybody befriending me, saying they loved to read too. I was in environments that did not foster education among my peers. The teachers always loved me, but among the other kids, I was always a bit of an outcast."
Anderson moved to Little Rock at the beginning of her seventh-grade year. She walked into her new school with her mother one day, at the time measuring 5 feet, 10 inches tall and 180 pounds. The first person they encountered was the basketball coach.
"Seventh grade was the first time I ever touched a basketball in my life," Anderson said. "The first person I saw when I walked into school was the basketball coach. He asked me if I played basketball. I said 'no,' but my mother said 'Yes, she does."
Anderson's mother was a single parent who worked late hours in the retail industry. At that moment, she realized that basketball would be a good way for her daughter to stay occupied while she worked.
"My mom had late hours and never wanted me home alone," Anderson said. "She made me play basketball so that I wouldn't have to go home."
While size has proven to be a critical factor in an athlete's success, there has to be a decent amount of skill and talent. At age 13, Anderson had neither.
"That first year of basketball was crazy because I just wasn't any good," Anderson said. "I was the biggest girl out there, but I wasn't any good. We were poor and I never had the proper shoes, so I would fly across the floor and leave scuff marks all over the place with my tennis shoes."
Anderson was determined to improve her basketball abilities, which she found helpful in all areas of her life.
"Finally, I started to do some things well," Anderson said. "Just little things - when I finally scored like 10 points in a game, everybody was so proud. It was the idea of reflected appraisal - I actually started to believe it. I started going to the gym on the weekends with my coach to practice. I played with the guys. I did whatever I could to bring myself along and become more coordinated. It was the first time people ever clapped at anything I did. Sports were very instrumental in my self confidence and development."
Anderson always knew she wanted to go to college.
She also knew that making that a reality wouldn't be easy. Her mother had already told her that if she wanted to go to college, she would have to find a way to fund her education.
What she didn't realize was that basketball could very well be her ticket to higher education.
"I had no idea that you could play basketball in college," Anderson said. "You would think that in the days of ESPN, everyone would have an idea of that. But we were poor and we never had cable. I kind of lived in a micro-world. I only knew what I could see."
Stumbling into playing AAU basketball helped Anderson in multiple ways. Not only did it give her exposure to college coaches in terms of recruiting, it also opened her eyes to the bigger world.
"My AAU coach was a former Lady Razorback and she was the first one to tell me that if you play basketball, you could go to college for free," Anderson said. "Even finding that out, I started to think that maybe I could figure out a way to pay for it. Once I realized that, I started traveling to a lot of AAU tournaments because I was told that colleges recruit more in the summertime. Once schools started taking interest, I was excited. I became even more excited when the bigger schools started taking interest."
As her success on the court continued to increase, Anderson never lost sight of her main objective in the classroom. In many ways, she found the classroom to be a nice break from the hardwood.
"I was very, very lucky in that I had great advisors along the way," Anderson said. "I had people who always said 'Celia, don't forget to be smart.' That was the key thing and it was really good advice. And I liked it because basketball was kind of a 'do-as-I-say' realm, but in the classroom, I was always free to think. My teachers just wanted to make sure I knew how to think."
Basketball-wise, Anderson capped her high school career with a state championship in 1997 before signing with the Razorbacks.
As strong of a student as Anderson had always been, there was no strategy behind her studies. It had always come natural and she never really viewed school as much of a challenge. Once she arrived in Fayetteville, she quickly learned that things would be different. But that wasn't going to stop her.
"I kind of taught myself to be extremely disciplined," Anderson said. "I taught myself how to study. I didn't have any study habits at all. I had taken a couple of AP courses at Hall High School, but nothing was ever extremely difficult. I was embarrassed to tell people I didn't know how to study, so I went to the library at the University of Arkansas. I went through and took manuals off the shelves on good study skills and note-taking. I read those books and I figured out what worked best. That's when I got my very first planner and I started to utilize it because I was one of those people who liked school. I thrived on it and I didn't want to disappoint my professors."
The transition to Arkansas wasn't always easy for Anderson, but through it all, she began to find herself.
"When I got to Arkansas, the game completely changed," Anderson said. "It was like I was starting over again. And I struggled. But I started to realize that I was learning lessons that were going to help me long after I stopped dribbling a basketball. It took me probably until my junior year to figure it all out and to start to shape myself and realize that this was bigger than basketball. We were getting up early because they wanted us to be disciplined. Finally, all of that clicked in my mind."
For the first time in her life, Anderson was at a place that admired her accomplishments in the classroom as much as the ones in nearby Bud Walton Arena.
"Being at the University really created a good balance," Anderson said. "I was on the SEC Academic Honor Roll for three years and that became a big thing. That is almost as celebrated as being the MVP of your team; maybe not among the average fan, but on campus. Now that celebrated part really helps me use that as a platform to speak to kids. They want to hear me because I'm an athlete, not because I love books. So, it provides me a good springboard to help them get mentally prepared."
Anderson's first two seasons were some of the most magical runs in Arkansas history. The team went a combined 42-24 during that span, advancing to the NCAA Final Four in 1998 and winning the WNIT in 1999. While those two seasons are looked back upon with great nostalgia by the Razorback faithful, Anderson said it was her final two seasons that are most memorable.
"You look back on it all and it was a really big deal, but my freshman and sophomore years, I didn't play a whole lot," Anderson said. "My senior year, when we made it to the NCAA Tournament, it was an even bigger year for me, even though we lost in the second round. To me, it was kind of like 'I am a part of this. I am a real part of this.' While the championships are important because everyone thinks it's amazing that you've been to a Final Four, but my final year, I had been with those same girls for four years. We formed a bond. To me, the excitement of it all was when you and the program became one. Then, it was beautiful."
Anderson can't identify a time when she decided that writing would become her primary career. She believes it is because the gift and the desire have always been with her.
"I think I was born to write," Anderson said. "I think this is the reason why I was created. I think God created me for this."
Her destiny for a career as an author didn't reveal itself until after her college days. But when Anderson decided that she wanted to pursue writing full-time, her past experiences gave her the courage she needed to move forward.
"Once my career was done, I did play for a while overseas, but then I just took all of those principles I had learned and used them as a blueprint for my life," Anderson said. "When I decided I wanted to become a writer on my own, I just remembered all of those no-fear locker room talks when we were facing some teams better than us. We beat some of those great teams, especially in 1998. When it came time to write a book, everybody asked if I was afraid. I told them that I had been there and done that. Basketball was the final piece that I needed to couple with my talents of writing."
Soon after, Anderson began substituting at public schools in Kentucky. It was the interaction with her students that provided the inspiration for her future novels.
Having grown up as an avid reader, Anderson was shocked by what she heard from her students in Kentucky.
"There weren't a whole lot of readers," she said. "This has become such a quick-information generation. Everything is electronic. I started to talk to the kids and ask them why they didn't read. They said that the books were too long and too boring. This generation wanted something different and the books they were reading in their English courses were the things I was reading when I was in school."
Another factor became equally important in Anderson's inspiration in writing. Hurricane Katrina had just devastated the Gulf Coast. Some of the students in her classrooms were transplants from that area, students who had lost their homes; conceivably having lost everything.
From that, she began a four-part fiction series called the Ocean series. The main character is 17-year-old Ocean Sims, who has moved to Little Rock after being displaced from her home in New Orleans. Her father is a soldier fighting in Iraq and her boyfriend is a future star football player at LSU. The first book is entitled "Love, Ocean." Ocean was created based on a compilation of experiences and backgrounds of Anderson's students. Her writing style was her best attempt to fit the reading needs of her students.
"I heard reports everywhere about the city of New Orleans and the government's role in everything," Anderson said. "But no one was talking about these kids. No one was documenting their history. They were coming from schools that were less than adequate, or they were coming from great schools and ending up in schools that were not as good. I took an historical event and wrapped a fictional storyline around it. I tried to create something that not only the students want to read, but parents want their kids to read as well.
"I started creating a list of what students would want if I were to write young adult novels," Anderson continued. "They wanted quick, plot-driven chapters. I wanted to really, really change the mind of reluctant readers. I wanted them to be able to pick up a book that they can finish and feel accomplished, as opposed to a huge book that might be intimidating. It has worked well for me. I've had kids who've never, ever picked up a book writing to me saying that it was the first book they had read cover to cover."
While Anderson says that the character of Ocean is based primarily on her students, she admits that there's hints of her own personality within the main character.
"Ocean is very, very levelheaded," Anderson said. "It's impossible to write a character that doesn't have little bitty traces of you in it. Ocean is the kind of kid that in the midst of the storm, she may make mistakes, but she is always going to do the right thing. She has a strong moral fiber and I am and was a lot like that."
The first two books of Anderson's series have already been written and released (they can be found on her Web site: www.celiaanderson.com). Her second book - "Daddy's Home - centers on Ocean running away from her alcoholic aunt and reuniting with her boyfriend, finding that they have both changed. Her father also returns from Iraq, and Ocean has to balance all of those feelings and challenges. Anderson is currently finishing her third book in the series.
"I have really been most excited about the impact that it has had on male readers," Anderson said. "Ocean dates a guy that plays football and signs to play at LSU after being one of the top receivers. The boys can really relate to that facet, and so both boys and girls are able to relate to the books."
Anderson isn't done learning. She never will be. She continues to have educational goals and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University.
"I always said that I was going to get my Ph.D. before I turned 35, so it was now or never," Anderson said. "I will finish in 2013 and I'll be 34. I hope one day to work in higher education administration. One day, I would love to be the president of a college, or even as a vice president of student affairs."
Perhaps the best lessons that Anderson has learned recently came during a trip to Rwanda last summer as part of the Africa Reads program. She learned that despite not having much money or any resources, the students there are most hungry for an education.
"I saw these kids, how bad their shoes and clothes were and that there was nothing on the playground," Anderson said. "I was feeling so bad for them and wanted to get them things, material things. But after watching them for a week and paying attention, I changed my mind. It's all about the criteria by which you value success. They value education; they would knock you over to get a book and they loved their teachers. It was such a learning experience. I learned more from the eight and nine-year-olds that I taught in Africa than they learned from me. It was an opportunity to learn something every day and I never want to miss out on those opportunities. I tell people to realize that you can learn from anyone and anything. You can't have an elitist mentality."
Anderson has been quite busy of late. She is a single mother to her seven-year-old daughter Gabrielle Simone Anderson and continues her G.A.M.E.T.I.M.E. (Gaining A Meaningful Education To Insure Maximum Elevation) presentations across the country, encouraging students to "get in the game of life." She also teaches at Northwest Arkansas Community College, a job that brings her great joy.
"I absolutely love being in the classroom because I feel so connected to the students," Anderson said. "I'm a tough instructor and I hold them accountable because I don't want to hinder anyone's success. I'm also young enough where I can relate to the students I teach, but I am also old enough to know better. This is the perfect time in my life for me to teach this generation. I try to take a lot of personality into the classroom and try to make my students laugh. I do a lot of one-on-one work with my students and do a lot of encouraging."
Encouraging is what Anderson does best. She preaches personal responsibility and uses her own experiences as examples.
"The first step to being successful in your life is having the mentality of a winner," Anderson said. "You have to go there in your mind. I grew up in a situation where I didn't have proper resources, but at the end of the day, it's all up to you. I knew a long time ago that I was going to get a Ph.D. It didn't matter what got in my way, I was going to get around it or make it disappear. You have to make it happen. Don't make excuses.
"Your birth situation does not determine your destination."