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Alumna stares down cancer, bias; passes on the lessons

Robin Chenoweth
September 27, 2018

Shelly Martin, MA ’16, remembers sitting in an African American and African Studies class at Ohio State and feeling intense pain.

It wasn’t the physical sort (though she would later face that, too). Her affliction was emotional, because she is black, and the topics her instructor discussed were utterly foreign to her.

“I thought, I should know this stuff — about people, events, prominent black writers like W.E.B. DuBois, who spoke about the black experience historically,” she said. “I had never read those books before. I didn’t even know who that was.”

She was 41 years old, a high school dropout taking continuing education even after her undergraduate application to the main campus was denied — twice. Her coworkers at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center Department of Nursing Education convinced her take a few classes anyway. Maybe she could work her way into a program.

“I felt really ignorant at the time,” said Martin, winner of the 2018 College of Education and Human Ecology Alumni Award of Distinction for her outstanding contributions to her community and profession.

Still, her ignorance yielded to motivation, she said.

One taste of it, and she craved education. She sat in the front row, raised her hand frequently, attended professors’ office hours. True to her mentors’ advice, she got into an undergraduate program, then four years later, was accepted into Education and Human Ecology’s Workforce Development and Education master’s program.

Most black women never get that chance, she said. And her two brothers yearned to attend college, but suffered from life-threatening sickle cell anemia and could not. “So how dare I not go to college when they want to and can’t?” she said.

How dare she, indeed.

Turning challenges into opportunities

Martin’s office in Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center is a repository for awards — embossed and engraved, acrylic statues and walnut plaques — seven in all and three awarded this year, including the EHE award. Most recognize her commitment to helping women and championing diversity.

“When this is your passion, this is just what you do,” she said. “You don’t even think about getting recognized with an award,” she said.

Earning her master’s in workforce development and education provided her insights into training diverse populations of adults. “I already had that mindset coming into it but I grabbed ahold of anything that also focused on diversity.”

Now assistant director of the Diagnostic Transport Department at the medical center, she’s developed a reputation for helping others break through societal constructs that say they can’t get a better job, can’t get a college education, can’t lead a fuller life.

A large group of the Wexner Center’s Education, Development and Resources employees, including Shelly Martin, pose outdoors.
Shelly Martin poses with former coworkers at the Wexner Medical Center’s Education, Development and Resources, now the Department of Nursing Education.

Throughout the day, they knock at her office door, email and call her — women of color, people with disabilities, members of the LGBTQ community, immigrants. They have coffee chats (though she's not a java fan). Outside of work, she conducts “walking” meetings at 7 a.m. or 7 p.m. — times she sets aside in her jam-packed schedule to mentor others.

They’re not all employees: They’re people stuck in dead-end jobs, caught in abusive relationships and thwarted by self-doubt. They’re desperate to know: How did she overcome her incredible odds?

“My story is so unique that no one else can tell it,” she explains. “I have the courage to be transparent and the courage to be determined … and that determination pushes me forward.”

And so, she tells them her story.

Pushed to aim high

Martin is a domestic violence survivor and recognizes signs of abuse in others. She had five children by age 21 and — like most moms — would walk on hot coals for her kids. She grew up on the economically depressed east side of Columbus and lives there still. So, getting a steady job as a patient care associate seemed like the be-all, end-all.

She was so good at patient care that a position in nursing education was created for her. “If I hadn’t gone to nursing education, I would have been a (patient care associate) for the rest of my life. Because I was that woman that I’m mentoring now, who’s in the job and saying, ‘I have a job! This is great!’”

“They need somebody to motivate them and say, ‘You’re here, but now what? There are higher heights. You can do more.’”

Several somebodies — nurses in her department — impelled her to get a degree. “I gave up when I got the denial letter. I’m like, forget this.” Her coworkers would not let her surrender and convinced her to try other avenues. It worked.

“They became this new family: sisters, mothers. Especially in a society where race plays such a big factor … to be around so many white women and not feel different, it was so new to me. “

Her life was (and still is) hectic: working fulltime, going to school, caring for aging parents, actively involved with eight children, attending grandchildren’s sporting events, engaged with church and community. Midway into her undergraduate studies, doctors found and removed a tumor from her head. Her face was paralyzed for six months.

She persevered, and was so astounded by her love for education that she reached out to then-President Gordon Gee to ask how she could help people of color get admitted to Ohio State. He introduced her to Joyce Beatty (now a U.S. representative), who began mentoring her.

Next, she aimed even higher and was accepted into the master’s program in the Department of Educational Studies. As part of the Foundations of Workforce Development Education class, she visited organizations that helped underemployed, unemployed and people with disabilities to find work. The experience resonated with her.

“She had perspectives on families in poverty that maybe other students didn’t have, and she was never afraid to share that,” said Chris Zirkle, associate professor of workforce development. “Her own personal experiences in that regard brought a lot to the class. I found that really interesting and appreciated her sharing it because not every student does that.”

Twenty members of Shelly Martin's family pose with a bicycle outside a house.
Shelly Martin, center, frequently gathers with many of her 24 grandchildren, eight children and their spouses.

Keeping focus, facing death

Martin’s diagnosis of breast cancer in 2015, while she was still in grad school, was a shocker. A woman of faith, she said God told her to “prepare to die and fight to live.” She and her husband planned her funeral.

“We had to go to death. I spent two days crying. Literally, you see yourself dead. But then you can fight. Once death is no longer an issue, then you can fight to live.”

Now, she counsels women with breast cancer and is writing a book about it.

So, hearing recently that a lump on her neck could be cancer didn’t have the same sting. She knew what to do: She had a bridal shower to attend, a family vacation to plan for most of her 24 grandchildren. Three grandsons were playing football that weekend; wearing a jersey with their names on it, she would join their enormous family fan-base in the stands. She went on with life.

Also that week she was to mentor two people about their careers. She’d tell them how to buy designer business clothes at thrift stores. She’d suggest keeping a jar for money to meet someone they admire over coffee. She’d counsel them to be courageous in pursuit of their dreams.

“You’ve got to go get it. It’s not going to come to you,” she said. “Pray and see what your passion and purpose is and then you’re going to have to work hard at it.”

Nobody could be better suited to mentor diverse populations than Martin is, Zirkle said. "She's come through the trenches, so she's an ideal person to give those folks advice. She's been there, done that."

And she has a lot of guidance left to pass on, a lot of supporting to do. Counter to the doctor’s initial prognosis, Martin’s biopsy showed no cancer.

Deep down, she knew it all along. She just had to keep focused.



A PhD who once worked in a genetics lab at Yale now teaches biotechnology in Columbus City Schools. A lawyer who graduated from Ohio State teaches business. An Army surgical technician instructs student technicians, while carpenters and cosmetologists teach in high schools, career centers and correctional facilities.

Looking for encore careers, they all enrolled in the College of Education and Human Ecology’s Workforce Development and Education program to get alternative teacher licenses, undergraduate or master’s degrees in teaching and workforce training.

“You walk in our classes and you'll see 20-somethings and you'll see 50-year-olds; you'll see people with master's degrees and people with high school diplomas in the same class,” said Associate Professor Chris Zirkle.

Ohio State was among the first universities to offer vocational teacher training in 1917. The program is the only one at Ohio State to offer alternative licensure — in this case a non-traditional pathway to teaching that requires five years of work experience in the field which they are teaching.


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