Nicole Lynn Lewis on Helping Young Student Parents — and Their Kids — Excel
Nicole Lynn Lewis is a former teen mom who attended the College of William and Mary with her newborn daughter in tow. This journey — and the hardships that defined it — inspired Lewis’ memoir, Pregnant Girl. It also inspired her to launch Generation Hope, a nonprofit devoted to supporting the success of student parents.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Lisa Hamilton recently spoke with Lewis about her experiences as a Black teen mom, her work as the CEO of Generation Hope and how colleges can do more to help student parents thrive.
A big thank you to Lewis for chatting with us!
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In this episode on helping student parents succeed, you’ll learn
- The challenges Lewis experienced as a Black teen mom.
- Common misconceptions about young parents.
- Why student parents often feel invisible on a college campus.
- How Generation Hope supports student parents and their children.
In Nicole Lynn Lewis’ own words…
“I think we are really missing the mark when we start intervening in a situation at the point of a teen pregnancy.”
“There’s such a powerful symbiotic relationship between a parent’s success and their child’s success.”
“The vast majority of colleges and universities have no idea how many of their students are parenting.”
“When I found out that I had been accepted into William and Mary, I was eight-months pregnant. I was living day to day in a Motel 6.”
“Higher ed really wasn’t even thinking about this population…never mind, how do we help them get to the graduation stage?”
Resources and links
About the podcast
CaseyCast is a podcast produced by the Casey Foundation and hosted by its President and CEO Lisa Hamilton. Each episode features Hamilton talking with a new expert about how we can build a brighter future for kids, families and communities.
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From the Annie E. Casey Foundation, I'm Lisa Hamilton… and this is CaseyCast.
At the Casey Foundation, we support several nonprofits that help to advance our work of building a brighter future, for children, youth and families. Sometimes that programming works to help parents and kids at the same time, which is called a two-generation approach. And we'll be talking to a leader in this type of work, today.
Our guest is Nicole Lynn Lewis. She's an author and advocate. Nicole's a former teen mom who put herself through the College of William and Mary, with a newborn daughter in tow. Using lessons from that experience, she became the founder and CEO of Generation Hope, a nonprofit that works with education and policy partners to ensure the success of all student parents and their children.
Welcome, Nicole. And thank you for joining us on CaseyCast.
Nicole Lynn Lewis:
Thank you so much for having me. I'm excited to chat today.
Well, let's start with the obvious. There are lots of assumptions and stereotypes about teen parents. What can you tell us about teen parents?
Nicole Lynn Lewis:
One pervasive stereotype is that they're not ambitious. That they're lazy, that they don't care about their education. And in doing this work for 12 years with Generation Hope and working with teen parents, even prior to that, I can tell you that that stereotype is so inaccurate. All of the young parents that I've met and doing this work, have been extremely committed to their children. Very much want to complete their education and to create a better future for their families. And are just so driven.
I think another one, is many people see the headlines that the national team pregnancy rate is declining, and so therefore, it must not be as big of an issue, or it must not be impacting that many young people and that many families across the country. And that's also not true. The U.S. still has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates among developed countries. And so this is still happening.
They are more likely to be young people of color. Black girls are two times more likely to experience a teen pregnancy than white girls, and Hispanic or Latinx girls are also two times more likely to experience a pregnancy than white girls. It is certainly something we see in communities that are experiencing low income, that have been cut off from resources and opportunities and investments.
Your memoir, Pregnant Girl hit bookshelves last year, and it reflects on your experiences as a young mother.
You wrote in the book: "We are more than a moment. And yet we tend to think of pregnancy as the defining moment for a lifetime of struggle for young parents. We ignore all that came before, whether it's how we failed youth, or the promise they held. We ignore the larger issues."
What did you mean by that? How is this not the defining moment for young people? And what comes before that informs their lives?
Nicole Lynn Lewis:
Yeah. I describe it as a necklace. And when we think about a broken necklace and the beads that begin to fall from a broken necklace. I think many people look at a teen pregnancy in a young person's life and think that that's the first bead that ever fell from that necklace. There were so many things that were going on in their lives prior to that pregnancy; there were beads that fell long before that teen pregnancy.
Another misconception about teen pregnancy is that teen pregnancy causes poverty. And what I talk about in the book is that poverty actually causes teen pregnancy.
And that's a great example of a bead that is falling for so many young people across this country: that they are growing up in poverty. They're growing up, being cut off from resources and supports, and information and investments that are needed, and that they deserve. And those are the places where we see teen pregnancy happening at those higher rates. Seventy percent of the children living in poverty in this country are children of color. That is not a coincidence, that then we see that these young people are more likely to experience a teen pregnancy. But there are other beads, right? I think race is something I talk about a lot in the book. In that the communities that have been cut off from those resources and supports are, as I said, communities of color. Where we have seen that they have been historically under invested in; excluded from opportunities, excluded from economic mobility; really disenfranchised in our education spaces.
Some of the scholars who we've worked with that Generation Hope have had just heart wrenching experiences of losing parents to substance abuse, having grown up most of their lives in foster care, experiencing molestation, so many things that are heartbreaking, that again, happened way before the teen pregnancy even came into the picture. And I think we are really missing the mark when we start intervening in a situation at the point of a team pregnancy or when we define a young person by their teen pregnancy… and really don't understand who they are, what they've been through and everything that they've brought into that experience.
Nicole, can I ask you to read a passage from Pregnant Girl on page 55?
Nicole Lynn Lewis:
When young women discover their pregnancies and after they have their babies, many find themselves on the same dark and isolated island. I was experiencing firsthand, the way we treat teen mothers. The shaming, the avoidance and the dismal predictions we make about their futures.
So, let me take you back, Nicole. How did your pregnancy affect you and how did it make you feel about your own future?
Nicole Lynn Lewis:
Well, I was a college-bound rockstar student, when I found out that I was pregnant. I was in my senior year, at the tail end of my senior year. I had already applied to a bunch of different schools and was receiving some of those acceptance letters back in the mail. It was supposed to be this really pivotal time. I was about to embark on the rest of my life.
I had been raised by two college educated parents, who very much stressed the importance of education for my sister and I. And college was a no brainer, in terms of the fact that I would go to college. That was always the next step after high school. And so here I was, months away from high school graduation, receiving these acceptance letters into various schools. And I found out I was pregnant. And I was completely devastated, shocked, scared. Everything that I had worked toward, everything that my parents had prepared me for, was suddenly in jeopardy.
I didn't have a fellow student, a young woman, who I knew who had gotten pregnant, and who had gone off to college. That just didn't happen. Most of the girls in that situation disappeared. And so it was extremely difficult for me to envision how I was going to still be able to go to school. And how I was going to be a mother. Those two things were not going to come together. It was very hard to see how they could come together.
And what I heard from everyone in my life pretty much was, "Your life is over." You're not going to go to college. Friends, administrators, teachers; teachers who used to be my biggest fans were now some of my biggest critics. And so the future was extremely dark. It looked like I wasn't going to be able to go to school. And even though I knew that my education was probably the best way for me to provide for this baby, I didn't have a path to get there. And so, it was really a scary time.
In describing how you felt after you gave birth to your daughter, you wrote: "Shame is a strong feeling, but also a powerful weapon."
And so I wanted to explore that. First, maybe, how did shame play out for you? But then also, it was motivating for you in terms of motherhood. How did you process that, maybe, disappointment in yourself? And how did you find that resilience and motivation to keep going?
Nicole Lynn Lewis:
I describe it in the book, like a scarlet letter. When you're a young woman and your belly is growing, it's extremely hard to hide that you are going to be bringing a life into the world. And so, as my belly grew, and as time went on, I really had to come to terms with the fact that people were going to be really judgmental about me and who I was and my story.
And I remember when I gave birth to my daughter, and I described that moment of bringing her into the world and holding her in my arms for the first time in the hospital. And I also, at that moment was like, "I'm not going to be ashamed. I'm not going to be ashamed of this beautiful life that I'm holding in my arms." How could anybody be ashamed of this baby. And I also knew that she needed me to move boldly in the world, right? She needed me to not be caught up in what the world thought about us and our story. But she needed me to move in the world in a way that would get us to where we needed to go.
And so that was a really defining moment for me, just holding her in the hospital. And I hear that from so many young parents. You go through so much throughout the pregnancy. But when you hold that baby in your arms, it often just changes so much.
I reflect back on many of our initiatives working with young people, and one in particular, a program where young people are aging out of foster care and they're saving for their futures. And it's the young parents who are the biggest savers, which seems ironic. But they are the most motivated and driven to create a brighter future for themselves and for their children. And so, in some ways, your story doesn't surprise me, because we have seen how parenthood can be an incredible motivator for young people.
You write that there are key people in your life, particularly a principal and a school counselor, who were champions and encouraged you to continue your education. What did that support mean to you? Where do other young people find that kind of support in your experience?
Nicole Lynn Lewis:
Yeah. So, in high school, my principal, Mr. Morgan, was a rare black principal in Virginia Beach, in Virginia Beach Public Schools. In fact, I talk about the fact that our high school was built on a former plantation, the land of a former plantation. And so just kind of, of course, I didn't think about the totality of all of that when I was in high school. But in writing the book, just kind of understanding one, the rarity of black administrators and leaders, within the education space, and then just thinking about being in Virginia, the State of Virginia and the history there. But he was just, he had a passion for young people.
And he cared about me before I experienced a pregnancy. But when I became pregnant, he was one of the people, one of the first people that I told, and I talk about crying in his office. And him really being there for me. He helped to make sure that my absences during my senior year didn't prevent me from graduating. And my school counselor, who wasn't particularly warm and fuzzy, but she was consistent. She was consistent and she knew how she needed to show up for me in that moment. And at that time, I was not living at home. I was really kind of couch surfing with my boyfriend. And, because of the fact that we didn't have the stable living situation, it was hard for me to get to school every day which is the case, unfortunately, with so many young people, who are in this situation.
And so, they were huge. I mean, they made sure that I graduated from high school on time. If I hadn't graduated from high school on time, I don't know if I ever would've made it to college, or how quickly I would've been able to make it to college.
College is a different ballgame. It's not as easy to create relationships as it is in high school, where you see the same people every day and you're in the hallways. You can easily — and this is the case for many student parents — just be invisible on a college campus.
But I had a financial aid counselor who, Tammy Curry, who was fighting for me, even before I got to William and Mary. She helped to make sure that I got all my paperwork processed to qualify as an independent student. And as a financial aid counselor, I mean, she was the exact champion that I needed. Because I didn't have the money to go to college. And she was huge in just helping me connect the dots to get into school.
And it's hard for many young parents to find those champions. Because of that stigma and that shame that, unfortunately, is our knee jerk reaction in this situation.
I came into this with the advantage of being a rock star student. But there are so many young people who aren't in that situation, they haven't had that support to get there, who are really lacking those champions.
So talk to me about your college experience. I went through college. I was a single kid with no child. That's was rough for me. Just describe for us what your college experience was like having to care for a newborn? And you went to an extraordinarily prestigious and challenging school: the College of William and Mary. What was your college experience like?
Nicole Lynn Lewis:
When I found out that I had been accepted into William and Mary, I was eight-months pregnant. I was living day-to-day in a Motel 6.
Nicole Lynn Lewis:
And I was not the student that I am sure most people at the institution envisioned on the other side of that acceptance letter. So just that was a huge accomplishment, just getting accepted into William and Mary.
I knew that it was going to take even more just to actually step foot on that campus. And it was hard. I had, in the meantime, had to find enough cash to pull together just to verify my enrollment and to send that in with my enrollment acceptance. I had to have a baby. I had to find, somehow, some stable living situation. Living in a Motel 6 and going to William and Mary — and bringing home a baby from the hospital — that wasn't going to work. So how do you find a place to live? I needed reliable transportation. So, all of these stars had to align, just to actually step foot on campus. But I actually did. And my daughter, Narissa, was a little under 3 months old when I started.
And I always tell people, "I looked down at my feet and thought, these feet don't belong here." I was completely out of place at William and Mary. I was one of very few black students there. I was parenting. I didn't know where my tuition money or book money was coming from. I didn't have any sort of support system on campus. I was commuting about 150 miles every day to get to and from class, and to get my daughter from childcare. Which was like three to four hours in the car every day.
It was hard to just make sure all the dots were connected to get all of my daughter's stuff together in the morning. I would leave the house before the sun came out, drop her off at daycare, and hightail it up to Williamsburg. And then be in class all day, I had to find a place to pump. I was nursing. And I often tell people it was this daily act of survival. Like how do I just make sure that we can get through the next 24 hours?
I left my daughter's father right at the close of my freshman year and moved into a family housing unit on campus that wasn't intended for undergrads with a baby. But there was no nothing that said an undergrad with a baby couldn't live there. So, I did do a ton of advocating for myself to move into that on campus apartment. But that, it was a better situation for my daughter and I, but it was incredibly difficult financially. And how do you afford childcare? And how do you afford diapers and baby wipes? And a textbook for class? And heat in the winter? It was extremely difficult. it was just very hard emotionally and financially. But also game changing; just totally changed my life and my daughter's life to earn that degree.
Let's talk about graduation. What did that feel like when you walked across the stage with a toddler, and have made it through all of that journey?
Nicole Lynn Lewis:
Yeah. Graduation day just felt completely surreal. It's like, I had been envisioning graduation day since I had... Well, even before I experienced a pregnancy, I thought about what it would be to graduate from college. But then it was definitely on my mind, as soon as I found out that I was pregnant. Because it was like, I've got to get there.
So, actually making it there, and having the robe and the cap, and sitting in William and Mary Hall with all of the graduates and knowing my daughter was looking down on us. And the Queen Noor of Jordan was our commencement speaker. I mean, it was just like, I just felt that entire day, like, "Is this really happening?" And my daughter walked across the graduation stage with me, which was the best moment of that entire day. Because it really felt like our accomplishment, like we had achieved it together. And she was, I remember trying to find her in the sea of people, as we left. Came out of William and Mary Hall and I'm like looking for her and my parents. And I grab her up and I'm just crying into her, just so happy. And I'm thinking she's going to say something really profound. And her question to me was: "Are you done with classes now?" That's all she cared about. Like, "I'm tired of these classes taking our time together." So, I just will never forget that. But yeah, it completely changed our lives.
I moved up to the D.C. area. I started working on my master's degree at George Mason in public policy. And I was looking for a nonprofit organization that was doing this work. And really wanted to give back. And what I found out very quickly was that there were no organizations in the D.C. Metro area, that were devoted to teen parents and college completion. And then surprisingly, very few across the country.
And I realized that I was probably a person who could do something about the fact that this didn't exist in the world. I took my lived experience. I took what I had learned about nonprofit work and nonprofit management and put it together to create Generation Hope. Again, to really fill a gap and make sure that more young parents could have the resources and supports that they deserved to make it across the graduation stage.
Well, you were certainly extraordinary. I read that fewer than 2% of teen moms will graduate by the age of 30. And you are doing incredible work through Generation Hope, to increase the odds for those that follow you. So, tell me about Generation Hope. What is the work that you're doing? Who are you working with? And how is it going?
Nicole Lynn Lewis:
Yeah, so I started the organization in 2010.
We help teen moms and dads in the D.C. Metro area become college graduates. And we have a holistic, wraparound model that really seeks to infuse their lives with as much emotional and financial support as possible to help them make it to the graduation stage. The biggest obstacles to them being able to graduate are lack of emotional support and lack of financial support. And so, our Scholar Program, which is our core program, really seeks to build those supports back in.
So our students have, of course, we provide tuition assistance. We have an emergency fund, which has always been a part of our offering, ever since our inception, with a 72-hour turnaround time. Anything that they're experiencing, whether it's domestic violence, whether it's food insecurity, we can help make sure that they stay in college. That their needs are met. And their children's needs are met.
We also have a robust mentoring program, where we're matching them with caring individuals in the community. Who are really cheerleaders people who, if you have a teething baby at 2:00 AM and a midterm the next day, can say, "Don't give up. We're going to figure this out."
We also have licensed mental health professionals on our staff. And they can provide one-on-one counseling and group therapy to our scholars, as well as their children. We created a career readiness program.
Because we recognize that our students just aren't able to take advantage of a lot of the traditional career supports that happen at colleges and universities. They can't take an unpaid internship on Capitol Hill. They often can't go to a career fair at 6 p.m. at night, because they have to be home with their little ones.
And then we realized, about three or four years ago that we had this incredible opportunity to also help their children get ready for elementary school success. We had been hearing from so many of our scholars over the years, that they really wanted that support around parenting. And around, how do I help my kids be successful in kindergarten?
So we launched our Next Generation Academy, which is a home visiting model for our scholars' children. That simultaneously, while we help a parent get their degree, we're helping their children get ready for early elementary school success. And that's been just game changing for our families in so many ways. There's such a powerful symbiotic relationship between a parent's success and their child's success.
And then we also came to some realizations around the same time, that we had been working with teen parents in college in the DC region. We had been helping them navigate higher education, with about 20 different two- and four-year schools. And we were seeing some common gaps across higher ed, when it comes to making sure that parenting students are successful. First of all, that higher ed really wasn't even thinking about this population. And that wasn't even on their radar. And never mind, how do we help them get to the graduation stage? And at the same time, we had seen these just incredible metrics that we that were coming out of our scholar program. Our scholars graduated a higher rate than all college graduates. Whether they're parenting or not, it's almost eight times the rate of single mothers, nationwide, in college.
That is simply fantastic. I'm always inspired by social entrepreneurs, such as yourself, who take their own experience. And thank you so much for your honesty and authenticity in sharing your own journey. Because it clearly informs what you do now, and all that you navigated and overcame in your own life experience. You have figured out how to bake that into good programming, strong programming, on behalf of others, that is changing the odds that other young people are going to be successful, longer term. And that's for the good of not just that individual, but clearly for their children. And it's a shared goal of these colleges, who want to increase their graduation rates. I think one in five students are student parents. And so, while you were even solving for teen parents, this work has lots of benefits. For other student parents across the country, who need to graduate and desire to graduate. So, thank you so much for all of that work.
What are you helping these colleges and universities improve about their practice, so that young people don't face these kinds of barriers that you faced, trying to get through college?
Nicole Lynn Lewis:
Yeah, so our technical assistance program is called Family U, and we do some customized engagements with different organizations and institutions under that Family U umbrella. But we also have a cohort model under that umbrella, as well, which allows us to really do a deep dive, over two years, with institutions that want to level up their student-parent efforts.
And just kind of taking a step back. I talk to people working in higher ed every day. And first of all, the stat that you mentioned, most of them have no idea that one in five students is parenting. That's nearly 5 million undergraduate students across the country. And when we look at it through a race equity lens, it's almost half of all black, female undergraduate students across the country, are parenting. So really most people working in higher ed don't realize that this is a significant population. That also is the population that's currently enrolled. It doesn't cover the population that would enroll, if they felt like higher ed was a space that really embraced and supported them.
I also talk to people working in higher ed and they'll say, "Oh, we've checked that box. We have a child care center on our campus." And that's like the tip of the iceberg. Because first of all, my next question is, ""Well, how many of your students are using that child care center?" And most of them don't know. Or if they start to really dig, it's really not-
It's the staff.
Nicole Lynn Lewis:
It's the staff. Right. It's the staff and faculty. So, helping higher ed folks to understand that student parent work isn't a child care center. It's a lens with which, and through which, we should look at implementing all of our programming and our services.
The second thing that's really important is for people to understand that, when we do these things that help student parents, all students benefit. All students benefit from a campus that is family friendly, that considers the needs of the whole student. That really looks at, how do we make sure that students that have differing backgrounds and different experiences are successful. The other thing I that we talk about is student parent work is racial justice work. And we've kind of touched on this before. That we've seen over the past two years, institutions putting out a lot of statements around race equity. Well, people want to see action behind those race equity statements. And student parent-work offers an opportunity for institutions, to now put real action behind their race equity statements.
Through Family U, we go through a year of really doing a deep dive on what we call, the four key components of student parent work: That's data, it's people. It's culture and it's policy. And helping institutions think about how do we set up data collection systems to track the parenting status of our students. The vast majority of colleges and universities have no idea how many of their students are parenting. Which is such important information to have. So, we want them to collect that data. We help them figure out how to do that.
We want them looking at their people practices, through that student parent lens. Making sure you have people in leadership, but also on the frontline with students, who embrace and support student parents. And who make sure that they're doing things to accelerate their success. We also talk about the connection there to racial bias in this work. And kind of name that for people.
We're also looking at policies. And there are so many policies that can work against this population. Something that's really obvious, like no kids on campus. Most colleges have a no kids on campus policy. Well, if I'm a student parent and my child care fell through, but I need to go meet with an advisor after hours. I now can't do that, because I would have to bring my baby with me. And then, of course, that creates a snowball effect in terms of how successful I'm going to be as a student.
And then the culture. What is the overall culture of an institution? What are those traditional norms? Things that we're doing, that can further marginalize this population? How do we create a campus culture in our physical, kind of tangible ways? From lactation rooms for students and diaper changing stations in the bathroom, but also those unspoken norms and traditions that need to change, to make sure we're more inclusive of this population.
When we talk about college, many programs and narratives focus on college access. But you note that your senior year was just as hard as your freshman year. And that many students leave college with 75% or more of the credits that they need. As students near the finish line, life does not magically become easier. How does that inform the way Generation Hope structures support for student parents?
Nicole Lynn Lewis:
So, I think what we often see is institutions and programming start to taper off supports, as students get closer to that graduation stage. And so what we've done at Generation Hope, again, just knowing my own situation where senior year was one of the most difficult years of college. And I was student teaching, I was working on an honors thesis. I was doing all... I mean, on paper, I was doing an amazing job. And I was full throttle towards graduation. But in my personal life, I couldn't afford day care anymore. My car was having major issues. And I needed my car to drop my daughter off at daycare and to do everything I needed to do to get to class. So many things were happening, that I was not full throttle towards graduation.
And so what we do at Generation Hope is, our supports never wane. We continue to have the same energy, investment, communication with our students. As we did when they first entered college and into our program, up until they walk across that graduation stage. We have what we call academic planning meetings with them, in the summer of every year, including their senior year, going into their senior year. And that meeting, we talk about anything that we need to know, that could be coming down the pike in that senior year. How is housing looking? How is childcare? Is there anything that you see? Your employment, something that could happen with your job. Let's talk about it. Now let's get ahead of it now. And that really helps.
That's awesome. Not just to; but through to make sure that young people get across that graduation line. Well, what's next for you and Generation Hope? You have accomplished so much already. What are your ambitions beyond this moment?
Nicole Lynn Lewis:
There's so many ambitions. So what I haven't talked about as much, is we just launched a policy and advocacy agenda for the organization. And that is another way that we see our ability to help to dismantle some of these longstanding barriers to success for this population. So, we have priorities at the federal level and at the local level. Also, in the DC, Maryland, and Virginia area. And we're looking at things like higher ed affordability. We're looking at childcare affordability. And we're looking at true pathways to economic mobility.
A great example of the pathways to economic mobility is there are so many states that still do not count time in a college classroom towards the work requirements for students to be able to access their TANF benefits. Which means that, if I have to decide between getting the support that I need for my family and going to school, I'm always going to pick going, getting the support for my family. It disincentivizes me to go to college.
And one of the biggest questions that we get whenever we're on a national stage is, when are you coming to my community? We want this program in our community. And for a long time, we wanted to make sure we were fully established in the D.C. region before we started to say, "Okay, what is our next community?"
We're now at a place where we're ready to expand, to another city or region outside of the D.C. area. And we're in the process of creating that short list of communities, now. That will start to really explore, over the next six months. With the hope of having a site identified by the spring of 2023, and then standing up new programming for young parents in that new community, by 2024. So we're very excited about that. To finally be able to say, "Well, yes, we are expanding. And we're excited about being in more cities with this work."
That is fantastic. Well, you wrote that, when you were going through challenges during college, you needed to hear someone say you were strong, not just weak and vulnerable. And your book and your story are testaments to how incredibly strong you are. And you have a gift for seeing the strength in others. Thank you so much for sharing with us today, Nicole, your story and the amazing work of Generation Hope.
Nicole Lynn Lewis:
Thank you so much, Lisa, for having me.
And I want to thank our listeners as well. I hope you enjoyed today's show.
You can learn more about Casey and our guests, by checking out our show notes at www.aecf.org/podcast.
If you have questions or want to send us feedback, email us at [email protected]. Also, feel free to follow me on Twitter @lhamilton_aecf.
Until next time, I wish all of America's kids and all of you, a bright future.