April 21, 2015 was Laurie Halse Anderson’s special day. The OCC alumna and best-selling author received the Outstanding Alumni Award at the American Association of Community Colleges’ annual conference in San Antonio, Texas. She was one of only seven honorees nationwide. When Anderson received her award her remarks were brief and powerful. You can watch video of her story being shared with those in attendance and see her acceptance speech here.
Anderson’s novels have become required reading for young adults, providing them with an outlet as they undergo transformations in their lives. But her own story is as remarkable as any she has written. The best-selling author says she owes her success to her time spent at OCC. “It’s fun to think back on the very confused and very tired woman I was when I first showed up on campus a long time ago. I know looking back I wouldn’t be where I am now if I hadn’t started at OCC. There’s no question in my mind.”
Anderson was born in Potsdam, NY. She grew up poor and her family moved regularly. Her happy place was deep inside the books she read. “I found refuge from the real world in fantasy. I was always hauling around The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings. Anything that was science fiction or fantasy I read. I didn’t want to read about real life because my real life was much too painful. I found that magical transport into another world so inspiring.”
Anderson’s family wound up settling in the Syracuse area and she attended Fayetteville-Manlius High School. By her own admission she wasn’t a very good student. “I spent my senior year in Denmark as an American Field Service exchange student. I had no intention of going to college. I was tired of school and sick of it.”
After graduating Anderson changed her mind, decided she needed college and took a chance on OCC. She was a full-time student who was also working full time. “My days started early on a dairy farm in Marcellus. I’d milk cows and clean out the barn, then go to OCC. After classes I would go back to the farm for the afternoon milking.”
As she powered through life Anderson began to experience something in class that was new to her. “There were a couple of papers I got from English professors that had smiley faces on them. They wrote things like, ‘nice idea’ and they were very encouraging about the work I was trying to do. I had not seen that before.“
The positive reinforcement motivated her. In a short amount of time she went from the high school student who didn’t care to the college student invested in her success. “OCC is where I found my mind. I needed to grow up and get disciplined. The quality of the professors made a huge difference in my life. There was something about the attention I got from them that has never left me. It meant a great deal toward guiding me on the path to more education and more self-discovery.”
Anderson graduated from OCC in 1981 with a degree in Humanities. She transferred to Georgetown University where her transition to a four-year college went smoothly. “I didn’t have any trouble. I took a pretty heavy course load and kept working while I was in school. I came out fine.”
After graduating Anderson got married and started a family. They were living in Philadelphia and making ends meet was difficult. Her husband worked during the day and she worked at night because they couldn’t afford child care. She became a journalist covering news and writing for local newspapers but eventually realized her true calling. “After several years freelancing I began to think, ‘I have these kids in my house. I could probably write books for them.’ That’s where writing books started.”
In 1996 Anderson’s first children’s book was published. Ndito Runs was based on Kenyan Olympic marathon runners who ran to and from school each day. Her breakthrough novel would come three years later. Speak portrayed a high school freshman who was raped by an upper classman during a summer party. It chronicled her descent into isolation and depression before eventually finding her voice and strength on her way to vindication. The book became a New York Times best seller, was a finalist for the prestigious National Book Award and was adapted into a film.
Speak also became a fixture in school libraries across the country, where young adults found the book helped them with their own struggles. It also brought Anderson’s story full circle. “I had some very confused years as a teenager and I know how important books were for me back then. To think I could even have a little bit of an impact on the life of one person is remarkable.”
Anderson’s latest work is The Impossible Knife of Memory. It was inspired by her father’s struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Since writing the book she has become an advocate for veterans suffering from PTSD, calling for more attention to the backlog of the hundreds of thousands of disability benefits distributed the Office of Veterans Affair’s that prevent military families from getting the treatment they need.
Just as her professional life has flourished so too has her personal life. After Anderson’s first marriage ended she reconnected with a childhood friend, Scot Larrabee. During a time when Anderson was living in Pulaski, her parents and Larrabee’s parents were best friends, and the families would regularly go camping together.
Today she and Larrabee are married. Their blended family includes four children. They live in a very rural area outside the Oswego County village of Mexico. Anderson says it’s the perfect place for her to work on her craft. “I love living where we do. I don’t think I could write if there were people living close to me.”
Anderson has published 28 books for young readers. She’s sold more than two million books and her titles have been translated into 27 languages. Her success as an author has made her a regular at schools speaking with students.
She loves talking about her books and her educational background. “I’ve spoken to over a million high students in the last 15 years. I always make a point of telling them how important going to a community college has been for my life. I really encourage it. You look at the number of kids who get pressured into going to a four-year school right out of high school and it’s not the right time for them. If I can be a part of any type of movement to get more kids to consider everything community colleges have to offer I’m very proud to do that.”
In 2006 OCC honored Anderson by naming her one of the College’s distinguished Alumni Faces. Nine years later she was recognized nationally by the American Association of Community Colleges with their Outstanding Alumni Award. “It is an incredible honor. I’m a very typical example of a young person who was seeking my sense of direction. I never thought of myself as a really good student. There’s no way I would have ever predicted this. I was just trying to get by day to day and not be trampled on by bulls. That was a big priority of my existence back then. The fact I got published and people actually enjoy my books is an unanticipated thrill for me. I’m a pretty lucky girl.”