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.Story: He won $3.4 million — then went back to work as janitor
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!”Story: What are Newark, N.J., schools doing with $100 million gift from Facebook founder?
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.Story: Foreign teachers' American dreams vanish in a flash
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.”Video: SAT cheating scandal rocks community
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.Story: After 80 rejections, inventor, 84, comes up with a winner
“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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