Behind the Dores: Dr. Christy Russell

If you had told Dr. Christy Russell two years ago that she’s soon be spending her Saturdays in SEC football stadiums and her weekdays mentoring football players, she’d wouldn’t have believed it. After earning degrees in psychology, criminal justice, and social work, after volunteering for numerous nonprofits that work with young women, and after serving as Vanderbilt University’s director of transition programs (for transfer and first-generation students) and director of student care and community support, Russell believed she had her career path mapped out. But a call from Derek Mason brought “Dr. C” to the Athletic Department, and she’s never been happier.

I’m from Columbus, Ohio, but my parents are from Nigeria. It was a very interesting upbringing in a midwestern town like Columbus. I was born on the campus of Kent State University. That’s where they got their education before they moved to Columbus.

I have two bothers and one sister. It was a very loving home, a lot of fun. We were always in this weird, acculturation mix of trying to navigate our world in school and our world at home. We always lived in the suburbs. Our school was always very white. There were no other kids that looked like us. And then we’d get home and it was straight Nigerian culture. We struggled to find our identity and the balance. All we had was each other.

It gave me amazing resiliency, determination, and fortitude. My dad always told us, “You can never let anything or anyone stop you. These Americans don’t know anything about you and your royal heritage and where you’re from. You have to remember who you are.” It was engrained in us: never let your circumstances determine how your story ends.

As I began my college career [at Ohio State], I found myself gravitating to external opportunities where I volunteered with nonprofit organizations and worked in mentorship programs because I felt that was such an important gift I could give to others – that motivation and that encouraging.

Before taking this position as Director of Player Development, I always worked with girls. I’m a girl, I like being a girl. I’m a mother of two girls. It was like, “This is how you can own your womanhood” and “I am woman, hear my roar.” I dubbed myself the Girl Guru. And then I get this call from Coach Mason to come work with football and I’m like “Guys. Boys. That’s interesting.” I thought I had my whole life existence in one pretty box. And then he calls and totally turns my whole world upside down, in a good way.

I’d never really focused a lot of energy on boys. In our Nigerian household, everything was very male-dominated. My brothers were everything to my dad. My sister and I got the essential parenting we needed – no more, no less. But my brothers got all the things you look for. That translated into me not working with males, because I had this feeling that they already got enough mentoring.

But then I got the call from Coach Mason and he’s telling me his vision about really helping these young men have a well-rounded perspective. They’re surrounded by enough men and enough coaches who have a particular view. He said “I want them to have another perspective which is going to impact their lives and really help shape their life after Vanderbilt.” I thought this would be an interesting challenge, antithetical to everything I thought about myself in terms of what I can do.

I had a small fear that I’ve never really been an athlete. I ran track a little bit in high school, but I’m a nerd, I’m a bookworm. What if they don’t accept me because I don’t have that athletic experience?

But I get here and within the first couple of months, I realized I am now in this place in my career where I truly have found my fit and where I am supposed to be. I absolutely love working with these young men. Is it challenging? Yes. Some days, am I really tired? Absolutely. But that’s in anything that you love.

I realize that all of my skills and all of my tenacity, it works for males as well as it works for females. I’m finding that for the guys, the things I say come across different than if they heard it from a man. They are responding. They know it’s different and they like it. I ask them, “You guys tell me all the time you’re glad I’m here. Why?” “Because you’re different. We can just talk to you different.”

I get a lot of questions about relationships. I’m a woman who’s not their mom but is qualified to give them good, sound advice. I am that neutral-party woman. I get a lot of “Hey Doc C, you got a minute? Me and my girl have this going on …” A lot of times I just listen. I let them talk, and then I might say, “From a girl’s perspective, what you just said sounds like this…” and they say, “Man, that’s what she said!”

With many of the juniors and seniors who are thinking about their lives post-football, they want to talk about graduate school, that post-undergrad life. It’s giving them ideas in terms of career possibilities.

I’m still grappling with the idea of being considered a “team mom.” I did not get four degrees and a bazillion dollars-worth of student loans to be anybody’s team mom.

But then I think about those women whose full-time job it is to be a mom. It’s not insulting. It’s not devaluing. I had to shift my internal paradigm and how I thought about it. I run into people, and they’re like “Oh, you’re the team mom” in a dismissive way. Someone told me it’s much how we talk about women who choose to stay home and run a household. As a culture, we’re very dismissive of the skills that go into that.

To help my professional development side, I’ve found communities of other professionals who have come from the academic side to the athletic side who are writing. I was like “What journals do you publish in? Where do you write?” In talking to them, they said, “You have such a unique story, you have such a unique perspective.” This spring and summer I have plans for writing from an uber-qualified team mom perspective about working with the football team.

I’m Starbucks-obsessed. Anyone close to me knows two things about me: green is my favorite color, and I absolutely love Starbucks. I have two go-to orders: white chocolate mocha, and the caramel macchiato. At 2525 West End, those are my favorite baristas in the world. It’s like Cheers. I walk in, they all know my name. They’re like “Hi Chris, which one are you having today?”

I’ve known my husband since I was eight years old. We went to the same church together. He was enamored with this little Nigerian girl who was a firecracker. We were friends growing up, which later blossomed when I got to college.

We have a daughter who is a rising junior at Vanderbilt and another daughter who is 11. They are both so talented and mature. Our oldest just turned 18. She started here at Vandy when she was 16. She’s doing wonderful, really thriving. It helps me when I talk to parents [of recruits]. I not only understand Vanderbilt from an administrator’s standpoint, but as a parent as well.

When I was little on Kent State’s campus, they used to have a very active international students’ organization. They would put on a fashion show every spring, and students from all over the world would come in their traditional attire. My mom said I would always steal the show. Our outfits were very colorful, very bright. You were supposed to walk hand in hand as mother and daughter, but I would leave her and just sashay the runway without her.

In 2015, one of my good friends said I needed to start a blog. So, I have I do fashion tips, color of the year, how to do your work wardrobe, how to make athletic wear look cool. It’s a lot of fun.

When you look in the mirror, you should be happy with the way you look. That’s all you need. If you feel good in what you’re wearing, then wear it.

I’m very big about not conforming to anybody else’s standards. Own it. Be comfortable in your own skin. It took me some time to really be comfortable in my own skin, as a woman, as a darker-skinned woman. I like myself, I’m comfortable with myself, and this is the me people get.

Interviewed by Andrew Maraniss