Published August 27, 2011
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Allyson Reneau dropped out of the University of Oklahoma in 1981 to get married and start a family.
She promised herself she would return to school after her first child turned 5.
Thirty years and 11 children later, Reneau is finally fulfilling her promise, and then some.
The Oklahoma City woman is just three credit hours away from earning a bachelor's degree in communications from OU.
Somehow, she has maintained a 4.0 GPA while raising her children -- nine girls and two boys, now ages 6 to 29 -- and running her own business.
Starting Monday, Reneau, 50, will begin graduate studies in international relations at Harvard University. Once a week she will fly to Massachusetts for classes. School officials are allowing her to finish the three undergraduate credits she has left at OU later this year, Reneau said.
"Sometimes those dreams, you bury them," Reneau said. "You get so busy raising your family that you forget your identity."
For the past couple years, Reneau has gone straight from classes at OU to work. When she got home in the evenings, she would feed her family and spend time with them before starting homework. Often that meant waiting until 8 or 9 p.m. and studying late into the night. Then she would wake up about 5:30 a.m. to read the Bible and run before her children woke up.
Reneau first came to OU in 1979 from Kremlin, a small town north of Enid.
A former world champion baton twirler, Reneau beat out more than 140 people for a position as the featured twirler at OU. She was named a Top-10 Freshman and served as vice president of her sorority, Chi Omega.
Reneau left OU after her sophomore year to get married and start her family.
"I always said when the baby was 5, I would go back and finish my degree," Reneau said. "But there were 11 babies."
For 20 years, Reneau was a stay-at-home mom. She cooked, cleaned and cheered for her children at baseball games, violin concerts and more.
In 2000, she opened Victory Gymnastics. The gym started with one athlete, Reneau's daughter.
Today, as many as 500 athletes train there. The gym recently moved to a new building at 5721 Huettner Drive in Norman. Reneau coaches advanced-level gymnasts during the afternoon and evening. She also is director of Victory Academy, a school attached to the gym with about 10 students in first through sixth grade.
After her youngest daughter, Julianne, turned 5 in 2009, Reneau made an appointment with an adviser at OU.
Her family has been supportive, although some of the children tease her. One daughter, Olympia, said "What's the point, mom? You're so old!"
Reneau and her husband, Dale Reneau Jr., have taught their children to follow their dreams. The children said they were happy to see their mother pursue hers.
As the professor went over the assignments and described how to upload completed work on the computer, Reneau sat in her chair, "crumbling," she said. She wasn't sure she would go back for the second class.
"Everything had changed so much in 30 years," Reneau said. "I could not believe the academic challenge."
A former schoolteacher and an academic adviser at OU encouraged her, and Reneau made up her mind to push forward.
She chose to attend classes during the day so she wouldn't miss evenings with her family. Most of her classmates were less than half her age, and all of them had laptops. Reneau had a pen and paper.
Sometimes her classmates would mistake her for the teacher on the first day of class.
Other times, teachers would recognize her and ask, "Did I have your daughter?"
"Yes," Reneau would respond. "This is her book."
The hectic nature of Reneau's life is evident during evenings at home with the family.
On Thursday night, Reneau returned to the family's southwest Oklahoma City home about 8:30 p.m. She immediately set to the mad dash of cooking.
"It's all about speed now," she said, bustling around the kitchen.
Her daughters moved around her, joking and asking questions as Reneau chopped mushrooms, carrots and tomatoes for a salad. Chicken lasagna was warming.
Soon dinner was ready. The girls grabbed paper plates -- a staple for a family of 13 -- and started in.
Most of the rest of the family filtered in eventually. Punctuality went out the window after about child No. 8, Reneau said with a laugh.
The family hovered around an island in the center of the kitchen.
"We never sit down," Reneau said.
"There's nowhere to sit," said Dale Reneau III.
Three of the girls performed a dance near the entrance to the kitchen and Dale III drummed the countertop with his knuckles.
Reneau didn't sit down or eat until about 10:30 p.m. When she finally did, she held a fork in one hand and a stack of homework from one of her children in the other.
On Monday, Reneau will start graduate school. A generous benefactor gave her a private scholarship that will pay for her to fly to Massachusetts once a week to attend class. Reneau will fly out on Monday mornings, attend class on Monday nights and fly back home on Tuesdays, so she only misses one day of work and family.
The first time Reneau applied for graduate school at Harvard, she was rejected. She had nearly given up hope in April, but a friend encouraged her to keep trying. She applied for a different master's degree program, this one in international relations, and was accepted.
The degree will help her become a better person and empower other women, Reneau said.
She already has several invitations to visit other countries to speak to women. She plans to travel to Jordan and Bangladesh.
But for now, it's time to hit the books, she said.
"I've got one life to live," Reneau said. "I'm going to live it and give it all I've got."