Earlier this year, 23-year-old Kavita Akula successfully became the first Indian baller to graduate from an NCAA Division 1 (D1) college.
The Bhilai native, who last represented India at the 2017 FIBA Women's Asia Cup, had made history in 2017, when she transferred to the Grand Canyon University (GCU), Phoenix after completing her two years at the Garden City Community College, Kansas.
NCAA D1 is arguably the toughest and most competitive level of intercollegiate basketball in the world, and in her senior year at GCU, the 5'5 Akula had the distinction of being the only player on her team to start all 27 games that season.
We caught up with Akula to reflect on her historic stint with the 'Antelopes', the challenges she faced, and her advice to the many other upcoming Indian women's ballers who are following in her footsteps by joining North American high schools and colleges.
Read on for our exclusive Q&A with Kavita Akula...
Now that you have become the first Indian basketball player (male or female) to not only receive a full scholarship at an NCAA D1 college but also successfully graduate, what's next for you? Do you plan to stay on in the US or return to India?
This year I am just going on [by] myself. However, I do want to play somewhere overseas, if I get a chance. I am still in the US and currently, I am coaching 7th girls and next, I will be coaching boys.
You don’t come from a financially well off background. How tough was it to remain in the US and get scholarships?
It was very hard because I had to get jobs and work when my teammates are doing something else.
Describe the process of transferring from a Junior College to a D1 college. What were the main challenges and how did you overcome them?
Transferring JC to D1 was one heck of a ride. It was a completely different ball game. D1 you never have free time. My days used to start at 7 am and go all the way till 9 pm and after that you still got homework to do. NO Thanksgiving break, or Christmas. Well, Christmas break you might get 3 days off while everyone [else i.e.] "other students" get a month break.
Culturally what adjustments have you had to make- because your whole personality has transformed. What advice would you give to those girls from similar backgrounds as you – from Indian heartlands – who would not only have to deal with the basketball aspect but also the off-court culture shock?
I am a small girl and like you guys know height does matter in the game of b-ball. But the only thing that took me this far is my work ethic. If you ask my D1 coach she would say I work hard all the time. Having a good attitude, and work ethic will take anyone far in life.
You were the first Indian national ever to play at the D1 level. No one has done it before you. So what gave you the confidence that you would succeed?
I worked really hard and no one else knew that, but I just wanted to play D1 ball, even when I was at IMG. And someone has to change the history right? Lol.
What was the key to your success? If you had to pick one quality that allowed you to succeed, what would that be?
Off-court sacrifices should be the priority. For example in the US, people like to party, so don’t get into that. Make sure all your homework and papers are turned in before the weekend. Don’t wait till the last minute.
Have junior players like Khushi Dongre or Vaishnavi Yadav contacted you for advice? What would you tell girls like Dongre, Yadav and others, who are looking to follow in your footsteps?
Yes, I have tried to talk to them as much as I can. But I am busy so it's hard to make time. The only advice [I would give] would [be to] stay focused, and work hard even when no one is looking...because coaches are always looking!