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Video: Mom of 11 heads off to Harvard

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    >>> morning on education nation, inspiration for anyone who has put their personal dreams on hold to raise a family. we have one woman's remarkable story. good morning, janet.

    >> reporter: good morning. allison renault dropped out of college to raise, get this, 11 children. but the oklahoma woman is now back in school in a big way. the morning scramble. it's the daily race of getting the kids up, fed, and off to school.

    >> we need to make like a 16 slot toaster for me.

    >> reporter: hectic in any household they have a challenge unmatched my most. allison is the mother of 11 children, seven still at home.

    >> let's load. let's go. i need number seven, number nine, number 11 with me.

    >> reporter: it's been controlled chaos for as long as she can remember. endless car pools and decades of diapers but not a single regret that she left college to marry her husband, dale, and raise their family.

    >> when you start raising your children, you get very engrossed in their goals and you want them -- the best for your kids, so sometimes those things just kind of go to the way side. girls, hands up. pretty hands.

    >> reporter: as the kids were growing allison started working outside the home and now owns this gym in oklahoma city . it's beyond what most of us can imagine. 11 children, a never ending round-the-clock job, and then her other job, full-time here at the gym. but for allison , there was still something else -- the power of an unrealized dream . on a morning run the idea came to her. already back in college classes, could she at 50 cut it at one of the biggest names in higher education -- harvard?

    >> it took me a couple weeks to even call information to get their phone number . i thought, that is so far out there. that is not -- not distance wise but so far reaching of a dream , libra i didn't feel worthy to call them.

    >> reporter: eventually she did and look whose walking the ivy league now. it's a bit of a commute. oklahoma city to boston once a week. allison is enrolled in harvard's extension program and just three classes away from full fledged grad school .

    >> i think when you've dreamed of something for almost your whole life and over 30 years and you walk on the campus, you walk through harvard yard for the first time, it's overwhelming.

    >> reporter: back home, it's nothing short of inspiring.

    >> seeing my mom have children and have a business and then go to school, it just makes me, you know, want to try new things and especially when i have a family to keep going after my goals.

    >> i'm a renault. i'm smart.

    >> reporter: something else she has taught her children for years?

    >> always finish what i start.

    >> reporter: she now shows them. but perhaps no one more than allison who is on a mission to encourage other moms that it is never too late for a dream .

    >> janet, thank you so much. allison is with us now along with a personal finance expert carman wong ulrich the author of "the real cost of living ." i'm exhausted just watching that tape. you still have seven kids living at home, commuting 4,000 miles once a week to go to the harvard extension school . how are you doing all of this?

    >> well, i think you have to have good balance, a great husband, a great, supportive family. i do three things. i get up in the morning and i read inspirational material. for me it's the bible. then i head into the kitchen and i drink a spark energy drink and i say, allison , are you going to be a weenie or a hot dog today?

    >> which one are you most days?

    >> the hot dog . and i go run outside. and by the time i get back from my run i feel like, you know, my morning mojo is going.

    >> yeah.

    >> then i execute. i don't do slow.

    >> you say finish what you start as we heard the mantra there in the car with the kids.

    >> i don't let anybody steal my mojo.

    >> what motivated you to go back now though? it took you 30 years to get there. what motivated you to get back?

    >> i always promised myself when my baby was 5 that i would go back.

    >> it took ten more kids.

    >> i'm not mormon. i'm not catholic. i use birth control. and i guess i -- maybe i don't know what caused it but i was a really slow learner .

    >> you love your kids more importantly. carman , i think her story is such an inspiration.

    >> wonderful.

    >> for a lot of people who say i gave up my dreams when i started having my kids. i love my kids but i still have that part of me that wants to go back. how do i get there?

    >> allison said something interesting. life is really long but you get one shot at it and if you start having kids early you've got a long life ahead of you and a lot of time to fulfill your dreams. the first is our heads may be in the clouds a little bit. i want you to bring that down to reality. see how can i really make this dream happen? first you have to say what am i going to have to do with my life? once that dream is real and you can see it, what are the hurdles that you'll have to overtake to fulfill that dream ? there are hurdles personally. who is going to take the kids to school, practice, and to this? when are you going to sleep? when are you going to study? think about the practical things. how are you going to pay for it? what kind of financial sacrifices will the family have to make? in the end you have to think about what is the next step beyond the cost? where is that dream team that's going to help you fulfill this dream ? you mentioned this, allison . you said a supportive husband, your kids are supporting you. if you can get that team together, i've seen it when it is not a team and that can break things up. but also like allison , fantastic. get your husband onboard. get the kids onboard. get them to help you with chores, things around the house, financially. if you're making this accomplishment and getting this dream , but the family is in it with you too because you are a family.

    >> allison , you do have great support. you also had a benefactor, private benefactor who helped you finance the dream . that is important to consider the cost of what it is going to take to pursue that dream . that said i know getting back to the classroom is a little adjustment as well. how hard was that?

    >> it was terrifying. the first day i walked back into class i wanted to just quit. and i walk in the classroom and i am so old because everybody is so young. and everybody starts shuffling around and scooting their chairs and they think i'm the professor. and then i sit down and they're like, what is going on here? and then the professors will always say, i have three students -- three children that were students at the university of oklahoma before i got there and they'll always say, you know, i have your daughter in class. i'm like, yes. this is her book.

    >> there you go. i think the message is to just keep going.

    >> absolutely.

    >> thanks so much. allison , you've inspired so many. carman wong ulrich, as always, thank you.

TODAY contributor
updated 9/29/2011 10:39:17 AM ET 2011-09-29T14:39:17

Allyson Reneau is among the sunny, motivated new faces on the Harvard University campus this fall. But you might excuse the other college kids for thinking Allyson is their professor.

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At age 50, Reneau is not only pursuing an academic dream she gave up some 30 years ago, she’s cracking books while tending to a teeming gang of 11 children — seven still living at home. And if that isn’t challenging enough, Reneau lives in Oklahoma City, 2,000 miles from the Ivy League campus in Cambridge, Mass. where she's enrolled in the university's Extension School.

Video: Mom of 11 heads off to Harvard (on this page)

Reneau, a bundle of energy, appeared on TODAY Thursday, talking to Natalie Morales on how she manages to pull off the feat of tackling motherhood and major academia at an age when most folks are eyeing their IRAs toward eventual retirement.

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When Reneau dropped out of the University of Oklahoma in 1981 to marry her sweetheart Dale and have a baby, she thought it was a temporary detour from her college degree.

“I always promised myself when my baby was 5, I would go back (to college), but I just kept having babies,” Reneau told Morales. “I’m not Mormon, I’m not Catholic; I use birth control. I didn’t know what caused it, but I’m a really slow learner!”

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As the babies kept coming — nine girls and two boys — Reneau contented herself with being the best mother she could be, figuring that going back to college was not in the cards for her.

“When you start raising your children, you get very engrossed in their goals, and you want the best for your kids,” Reneau told TODAY’s Janet Shamlian. “Sometimes those things (going back to school) just kind of go to the wayside.”

But as her children grew older, Reneau began taking steps to make a life outside her home. In 2000, she started a non-profit gymnastics center in Oklahoma City. And when her youngest child, Julianne, turned 5 in 2009, she made what she admits was a nerve-wracking decision to re-enroll at the University of Oklahoma, where some of her old classmates were old enough to be tenured professors.

Reneau had doubts, she told Morales, about returning to the classroom. “It was really terrifying. In the first day I walked back into class, I really wanted to just quit.

“I walk into the classroom…and everybody is so young, (they) start shuffling around and spinning their chairs and they think I’m the professor.”

It was a different world for Reneau — she brought pen and paper while the other students toted laptops. Still, she not only survived but thrived at the university, completing 76 hours of coursework in a year and a half, and scored a perfect 4.0 grade point average.

But she was adamant her children weren’t going to get short-changed of mommy time, either. She got up early to make the kids breakfast — she blesses the wonders of the 16-slot toaster — and went to school during the day, while her children were also at school. She didn’t even begin to open her textbooks until her brood was tucked away for the night.

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She managed to pull it off while keeping stress at a minimum — and with a smile on her face all the while.

“I think you have to have good balance, you have to have a great husband, you have to have a great supportive family,” Reneau told Morales. “I do three things when I get up in the morning: I read inspirational material — for me it’s the Bible — and then I head into the kitchen and I drink a sparkling energy drink. I say to myself, ‘Allyson, are you going to be a weenie or a hot dog?’

“I go run outside, and when I get back from my run, I feel like my morning mojo is going and then I execute. I seize the day and I don’t do slow. I won’t let anybody steal my mojo.”

It worked out so well for Reneau she dared to dream even bigger — pursuing a master’s degree at Harvard. She told Shamlian it took weeks to summon the courage to contact the university, thinking attending Harvard “is so far out, that is so far-reaching of a dream, I didn’t feel worthy to call them.”

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But she made the call, and is now enrolled at Harvard Extension School, where she is taking the first of three classes in advance of being accepted into a master’s program with a field of study in international relations.

She makes the mind-boggling 4,000-mile round trip commute from Oklahoma City to Boston each Monday to take her class, with husband Dale pinch-hitting for her until she returns home Tuesday mornings. Reneau found a private benefactor to pay the considerable costs of her commute and college expenses.

She now says she’s on a mission to encourage others that it’s never too late to pursue their dreams, and it’s a lesson not lost on her children, now ages 7 to 29. Allyson’s daughter Victory told Shamlian her mother is her role model.

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“Seeing my mom, you know, have children, have a business and then go to school, it just makes me want to try new things, especially when I have a family, to keep going after my goals,” she said.

Personal finance expert Carmen Wong Ulrich appeared on TODAY alongside Reneau, and told Morales the key to Reneau’s success is having a family willing to work with her to achieve her goals.

”If you can get that team together — I’ve seen it when it’s not a team and that can break things up, but I’ve also seen it like Allyson,” Ulrich said. “You’re making this accomplishment, you’re getting this dream, but the family is in with you, too.”

“She added, “Life is really long, but you get one shot at it. Especially when you have kids early you’ve got a long life ahead of you, and a lot of time that you can really fulfill your dreams.”

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