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From hardscrabble beginnings to Ph.D. and beyond

Charlotte Jenkins Shroyer reflects on her life’s journey — a story that is uniquely American — and how education made all of the difference.

older woman in blue smiling while standing in front of artwork

It was an Ohio State art class in the 1960s that whet Charlotte Jenkins Shroyer’s interest in painting. Years later, she “listened to the music of her soul” and left teaching to pursue art as a career. (Photo by Sam Joseph)

America truly is a land of opportunity. Given my start from humble beginnings in rural Ohio, I am convinced that the life I have led and the opportunities afforded me as I grew and experienced the world around me could never have happened anywhere else. The Ohio State University and all of my education experiences have been a significant part of my attaining that American dream.

My father, one of 13 kids growing up in southern Ohio near the Ohio River, had only a sixth-grade education in a little country school back in the holler. Life was hard. He often told the story of walking sideways past a neighbor’s house on his way to school to hide the holes in his pants.

Dad wanted something more out of life, so he left the family log cabin in Appalachia and went to Columbus. There he met my mother, whose parents owned a local mom and pop store. Sometime after their marriage, he took her to Hamilton Road, once a rural unincorporated area east of Columbus, where he bought a parcel of land, dug a basement by hand and built a house from scratch.

When I was a very young child, we used a pump on the kitchen counter as the source of well water for the house, including water to flush the toilet. The home was heated only with a small coal stove in the living room. The fire glowed through the isinglass window in the stove’s door. My room, my haven, was in the attic under the eaves.

man in suit smiling at daughter

Young Charlotte shares a moment with her dad, who first encouraged her to attend Ohio State.

With his humble start, my father never gave up the goal of making more of his life and always instilled in me the love of education. Part of his dream was to see me go to college. His dream became my dream and then my reality. Elementary school was just a little country school (Courtright School), with eight grades, seats bolted to the floor, blackboards and inkwells. It didn’t take long for me to discover books.

I “broke the code” of the Dick and Jane reading method and could read just about anything thanks to my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Parsons, who taught phonics and the world of wonder in books.

On our weekly trip to Central Market in Columbus, my father took me to Bexley Public Library. While he waited in the car, I excitedly dove into the magic and wonder that lay in the printed word. Wow, a stack of books to read through the week! Once I was given a second-hand bicycle at about age 10, I rode the 10 miles or so to the Bexley library to get my books and beyond to explore the city.

I have been fortunate. Education has enabled me to go places I never would have gone otherwise. My love of the printed word and the love of my second-grade teacher for her pupils and their education enabled me to become a very good speller — so much so that I became a Central Ohio Spelling Bee champion in a competition sponsored by The Columbus Dispatch and with that a trip to Washington, D.C., to compete in the National Spelling Bee.

That trip was magical. It was my first outside Ohio other than one across the Ohio River when we visited my grandfather. In Washington, my parents and I stayed at the Willard Hotel. My eyes were wide open in wonder — dinner served on fancy plates set on linen-covered tables and awe-inspiring glimpses of our nation’s capital.

High school was another adventure. Students finishing eighth grade at Courtright School were given the choice of South High School in Columbus or Reynoldsburg High School. The lure of the city won me over, and four years of quality education at South High followed. My love of books only grew as I pursued a bachelor’s degree in French at Ohio State and a master’s and PhD in education at the University of Pittsburgh.

If I had been born in other parts of the world, it would have been difficult to climb the ladder to a life with a significantly better socioeconomic outcome. No one in my family had ever gone to college. But thanks to my father, there was never a question that I would attend college. And the only college in his mind was Ohio State. “If you say you graduated from Ohio State, everyone knows that university,” he’d say.

Dad was right. Ohio State was the right choice for me, but not because everyone would know of my alma mater. It was because campus life helped me grow and find my way intellectually, emotionally, socially and economically. New paths opened. I discovered a different world and began to know myself as a person.

girl riding bike in front of home

Shroyer rode her hand-me-down bike about 10 miles to Bexley Public Library, where she scooped up a week’s worth of books.

My academic experiences at Ohio State took me in directions I never imagined. Two quarters as a journalism major, during which I covered campus events and wrote stories for The Lantern, prepared me many years later to write a monthly column for a newspaper in Carson City, Nevada, and later a travel guide for Taos, New Mexico. Those writing skills would earn me a Best Feature award for an Albuquerque newspaper article on Navajo weaving.

The launch of Sputnik in 1957 enticed me to take a class in Russian taught by a frail Russian lady who had experienced the 1917 revolution. Had there been a Russian major then, it would have been mine. Rather, I majored in French. My love of that language and what I’ve been told is a pretty good adopted Parisian accent were instilled in me by a gruff Frenchman, Monsieur (and Professor) Charles Carlut.

I will always remember fondly the social side of university life and the excitement of football games on beautiful fall Saturdays. It was the Rose Bowl train to Pasadena in 1957 that introduced me to California, where I would eventually live.

I joined a small sorority with a house on Indianola Avenue. After 12 years of being bused to school, this “little country kid” could do something she had long dreamed of: walk to school with friends and participate in activities outside of class.

My education led me to become an elementary teacher, a professor and the director of a nonprofit school-to-work program for people with disabilities.

Today, in retirement, I am an artist — for which I also can thank Ohio State. It was in a university post-degree program to become a teacher that I picked up a paint brush for the first time. High marks and positive comments from my professor were the seeds for a long journey. Those seeds were nurtured by later art classes and finally blossomed during a serendipitous trip to Taos, New Mexico, where I now make my home. And to think it all started 30 years before with that paint brush in Elementary Art Methods.

At 82, I still set and achieve my goals. And I know that the freedom and liberty in this country allow me to do so. My American dream has come true. Thanks to education, it continues to be my reality.

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