If there is one thing that Shelly Martin has learned, it is that education can light up a dark world. And when she realized that her passion was people, she combined those two certainties into her life’s work and purpose.
By the time she had turned 21, Shelly had five children and had dropped out of the 12th grade. She later obtained her GED and worked at Tee Jay’s Country Place Restaurant and Broad Street Chiropractic. Shelly was working as a receptionist at the chiropractor’s office when one of the patients suggested that she apply for a Patent Care Associate (PCA) at the Wexner Medical Center. Shelly was given the job and became very good at teaching others on patient care, so good, in fact, that a position in Nursing Education was created just so she could assist with classes on patient education.
As Shelly began to shine in her career, someone suggested that she should go to college. “Being around highly educated people gave me support, and I decided to apply to The Ohio State University.” But her application was denied. At that point, Shelly wasn’t sure what to do, so she went to Ohio State’s Office of Continuing Education, now the Office of Distance Education and eLearning. “I was so scared to start college. But the counselor told me that I could do this and to start with an easy class and work my way up from there.” So Shelly took a suggested class in African American studies, and she was “blown away” by all the new things that she could learn.
Shelly next took an English class, one where she said they spoke a language she didn’t understand. But not knowing the answers was a revelation in itself, showing her that an important key to learning was to ask for help. And to sit in the front of the class. And to go to office hours. And to work hard.
One class at a time, Shelly’s knowledge grew, not only about English and African American history, but about herself. She realized that her passion was learning about others and understanding that there are more shared experiences than not, and that to fulfill that passion, she’d need a degree in hand.
So Shelly reapplied to Ohio State, was accepted, and began her studies in the Department of Comparative Studies. “I wanted to bring people together, to help them understand about diversity and the system of inclusion vs. exclusion. Comp Studies seemed like a good place to start.”
Once she started school, Shelly knew that she had to devote all of her time to develop herself so that she could develop others. This was quite the challenge: Shelly and her husband have eight children and 23 grandchildren, and she provides care and support for three aging parents and a brother with Sickle Cell Anemia. “I never went to football games, extra-curricular events, or joined any clubs or sororities because I just didn’t have the time.” Along with strong family and church support, Shelly found support through The Women’s Place, which helped her stay connected while achieving her dreams. “At The Women’s Place, I found social connections, friends, a place to development my skills, and people who looked like me.” At The Women’s Place, Shelly also participated in the Staff Leadership Series, which focuses on experiential leadership skill building and development for Ohio State staff. Shelly was also the recipient of a Leadership Development grant.
Support also came through the mentors that Shelly met during her academic journey. While in her third year in Comparative Studies, Shelly approached Wanda Dillard, Director of Community Development at the Wexner Medical Center, with the idea of telling others about stories of success as students. That talk led to Shelly having an event entitled “Women Moving Forward,” a free luncheon to challenge and motivate women at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center who were employed as Patient Care Associates, Unit Coordinators Associates, Transporter, sitters, dietary staff and housekeepers to pursue educational opportunities.
The sessions included speakers, food, and information about educational opportunities at Ohio State and provided an opportunity to listen to personal testimonies of women who had to overcome educational barriers and were successful. The end result was that ten of the participants are now attending Columbus State or Ohio State or have received their GED.
“You can’t be afraid to say I don’t know or I don’t understand. You don’t have to be afraid to get an education.”
“For me, Women Moving Forward was one of my most rewarding projects. After having three children while still in high school and dropping out my school my senior year, I know what it is like to go through life without a higher education. I know firsthand what it is like to live in an environment that cheats you out of your right to become a positive, hard-working contributor in our society. I was exposed to the worst kinds of conditions imaginable, conditions that robbed me of my self-esteem and the courage to leave an unhealthy environment. Despite these life challenging conditions, there were several women that motivated, encouraged and challenged me to reach higher than I believed I could go. This luncheon meant so much to so many women, but most of all it was my way of giving back to them. I have learned that life is about reaching up and down all at the same time.”
After graduating with her undergraduate degree, Shelly decided to continue on with her education, applying to graduate school at Ohio State for a master’s in Workforce Development; she will graduate in December 2016. Shelly has definite ideas on what she wants to do after she graduates. Her children would like her to write a story about her life experiences, and someday, she hopes to do so. Right now, she wants to talk to people in person to tell them that with honestly, they can get through anything. “You can’t be afraid to say I don’t know or I don’t understand. You don’t have to be afraid to get an education.”
Another way that Shelly knows she can elicit change is through a political position such as on a city council. She reached out to Congressman Joyce Beatty, sending her an email out of the blue, hoping that Congresswoman Beatty would be a mentor. And she was, introducing Shelly to influential African American women in politics such as Tracey Maxwell Heard, who was, at the time, an Ohio State Representative for District 26.
Education and mentors have been key for Shelly Martin, and she has let nothing stand in her way, including battling a tumor in her head as an undergraduate student and breast cancer diagnosis as a graduate student. “I went through homelessness, welfare, foster care system, domestic violence. I have had health problems, low education, and been out of school for a long time before going back. As an African American woman, I have to work twice as hard to get half as much as others.I went through all of that to say, ‘You can do this. Let me walk with you,’ so the next person doesn’t have to.”