Nicole Lynn Lewis is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Generation Hope, which works to surround motivated teen parents and their children with mentors, emotional support, and financial resources they need to succeed in higher ed, as well as supporting their children through school. Nicole, a former teen parent who worked while pursuing her bachelor’s degree to support herself and her daughter, discusses her own journey and what it taught her about our higher education system in her new book, Pregnant Girl, available on May 4, 2021. You can pre-order the book here.
Q: Nicole, could you tell us a bit about your own background and your journey to and through higher education? What was navigating higher education as a young parent like?
A: I grew up in New England, in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and for the first half of my childhood, we lived in predominantly White towns. The second half of my childhood I spent living in Virginia Beach, VA, which was a lot more diverse. I was raised by two college-educated parents in a middle-class home. My dad is Black, my mother is White, so race was never really a topic that we shied away from. My dad did a wonderful job of making sure we knew our history and education was huge in our home. My parents taught my sister and I the importance of education from a very young age so I always knew that it was important for me to do well in school and prepare myself to go to college. I think when it came to college, the economic value of a college degree was really secondary; it was clear to us that education was most vital to us to becoming the people we were meant to be. I was an honor roll student and was involved in a lot of extracurricular activities. Writing was my passion and I wrote for the high school and regional newspapers. I was just constantly busy with school and clubs and I was always somewhere volunteering—that kind of thing. College was always a given for me. My parents didn’t have the money to pay for my tuition necessarily but I think they were hoping that because my sister and I did well academically that scholarships would cover the cost.
During my senior year of high school, I had just been accepted into several colleges when I found out I was pregnant. I had this stack of college acceptance letters and also this positive pregnancy test—it was really hard to see how those two things could fit together. College had always been a very clear path to me and now all of a sudden, instantaneously, it felt impossible. And I also had other people around me telling me it wasn’t possible—friends, family, and teachers, a lot of the people who were once my biggest cheerleaders were now my biggest critics. That was extremely hard to deal with at the time. So I was feeling that incredible stigma of being a teen mom; it’s so pervasive and once you become a teen mom you immediately feel it. We treat young women in that situation differently—we ostracize them, judge them, and really tell them what their futures are going to be like, which is ultimately that they’ll be failures. That stigma was really difficult to overcome in addition to the challenges many young mothers face—homelessness, unhealthy relationships, unemployment, just trying to get a high school diploma nevermind a college degree. I experienced all of that that year after high school, after discovering my pregnancy. It was a lot to deal with all at once.
I ended up getting my high school diploma the next year, but I went hungry many days. In fact, when I found out I had been accepted into William & Mary, I was eight months pregnant and living day-to-day in a Motel 6. It was so overwhelming to have that acceptance when my life did not look like the life of a college student. I wasn’t sure if I was even going to make it to campus given everything that I was up against. It was exciting but also scary.
I ended up making it to campus—my daughter was almost three months old when I started my freshman year. I sometimes look back and wonder how I even did it. My freshman year I commuted about 150 miles, which means I spent about four hours total in my car every day just to get to and from campus and drop my daughter off at child care. I’d leave my house when it was dark to start the day and wouldn’t get home until seven or eight at night. Then when I got home it was really about getting her settled, bathed, and in bed and then I’d have to stay up late to do homework, so I was a zombie as a new mom and college student. I was really doing it on my own.
Thankfully my sophomore year I was able to find an apartment on campus that wasn’t intended for undergraduates, but I found a loophole and really advocated for myself to move in. That was the first time in pretty much two years that I felt settled—I had a roof over my head and a stable, safe home. But I also had no money so I had to find a way to feed my daughter and I and sometimes that meant that I’d go without so that she could eat. I had to pay for diapers and also things like textbooks for class, so sometimes I just didn’t have textbooks. Finding affordable child care was almost impossible. It was hard to try to overcome these hurdles and it was a daily, all-consuming exercise, connecting the dots and just surviving the next 24 hours. On top of all that, I had to be a mom and I had to be successful academically at this really rigorous institution. So the days were really hard and the nights were really long. These are all of the things we hear from parents we serve at Generation Hope.
Q: In Pregnant Girl, you discuss how being a young, Black mother affected your experience. Almost half of all Black women in college have dependent children, but many barriers, including structural racism and classism, stand in their way. From your own experience, how could higher education work better serve all students, but particularly Black parents?
A: I think big picture, we need to acknowledge that Black children really face an uphill battle to college and economic mobility before they’re born. In the book, I talk about the role that stress can play for a child, even in the womb, and we know that Black mothers experience stress at higher rates. And Black women, as well as American Indian and Alaskan Native women, are three times more likely to die from pregnancy related causes than White women. Research has shown that low-income children are more likely to have adverse experiences than their White peers by kindergarten. So this is all before we even get into how housing discrimination, the school-to-prison pipeline, the racial wealth gap, and racial discrimination further disadvantage Black students from entering higher ed and earning postsecondary credentials. That’s a big picture thing that we need to name, acknowledge, and address when we’re talking about the journeys that Black parents and Black students overall face just to get to college. Black parents in particular have all of these things working against them and then on top of that, they have the responsibility of being caregivers, which requires more of their time and resources. Higher education was not set up for Black students and certainly not parenting students. So all of these things are working together to complete significant barriers to completion for Black parents in particular.
I think there are some things higher ed can do to remove these barriers and begin to really address them and dismantle them.
- Embrace student parents as assets to institutions. First and foremost, higher ed can start by embracing all students and seeing their tremendous assets they bring to their institution. I think oftentimes when we talk to people about student parents, schools don’t realize that they really are an asset to the institution. They bring leadership and strength, they’re highly motivated to get degrees and have higher GPAs than non parenting peers. But they’re not making it to graduation because their needs aren’t being met and they don’t feel welcome. We conducted a survey in 2020 at Generation Hope of parenting students and found that 30 percent of parenting Black and 25 percent of parenting Latinx felt either somewhat unwelcome or very unwelcome on campuses, compared to 16 percent parenting White students. So there’s a real feeling that they don’t belong on campus. But really embracing and welcoming these students and seeing their failure to make it to graduation as an institutional failure and not the student would really change things. That’s really where we need to help higher education get to in the future.
- Connect student parents and foster community. One would be creating opportunities for students to connect with one another is really important. We hear time and time again how student parents feel isolated on their college campuses. They feel alone, but we know that’s not true—one in five students across the country is parenting, and almost half of all Black female undergraduate students across the country are parenting. Colleges have work to do to foster that community. One of those things is to begin tracking the parenting status of students—most colleges in different states don’t do that. Then they need to create opportunities for students to connect with and support one another. One of our most powerful aspects of our work at Generation Hope is our ability to build community and they really lean on each other and consider this to be their village.
- See student parent work as institution-wide work. Sometimes I talk to people who think that having a student parent center checks the box. We really want institutions to see this work as looking through the student parent lens at the entire system. For example in that study that I mentioned, we found that three quarters of student parents said that their financial aid officers didn’t inform them that child care expenses could be taken into account for their financial aid award, and that number increased to 79 percent for Black students. Even in the financial aid processes institutions need to make sure that they understand how things will impact student parents and especially Black parenting students. A child care center alone will not solve issues like that.
- Empower faculty to support students. Finally, I think faculty plays a huge role in the success of Black parents and student parents. Their mindset and expectations of what is possible for Black students overall is really critical. We see time and time again when a professor isn’t supportive of a student when they hear child care falls through. Faculty have the opportunity to start speaking power to students and really supporting them.
Q: In your book, you discuss many supports that you relied on throughout college, such as the Pell Grant, secure housing from your college, and food for yourself and your daughter via food stamps. Do similar or improved supports exist for student parents today? What’s changed?
A: Similar supports do exist today, but when I was younger during the time described in Pregnant Girl, it was difficult for me to access the supports back then. It took a ton of my time, it was incredibly cumbersome, I was often on these really long waiting lists, I had to make so many phone calls, fill out paperwork, and make many trips to these offices. Today those challenges are still there and are very real. And I think one of the differences is when we’re looking at those in the context of getting a college degree, the cost of college today is even higher. For example, I was able to find a loophole, advocate for myself, and get family housing on campus that really wasn’t intended for me as an undergraduate student at William & Mary.
On-campus housing is not a reality for most student parents. The survey I mentioned found that only eight percent of student parents found housing on their campuses across the country. So these supports are just not there, there are not enough supports in place, and it requires so much time energy and time for folks to try to access them. I think there are some innovative solutions. For example, SwiftStudent is a tool we’re thankful to be a part of. It helps students write financial aid appeal letters, which is especially relevant now as students’ circumstances have changed during the pandemic. The financial aid appeal process has often been shrouded in mystery and not super clear to most students, especially if juggling parenting on top of everything else. Students can enter info and SwiftStudent auto populates an appeal for them. That’s an example of an innovative solution that actually helps student parents and other students today.
Q: Your own experiences certainly seem to have informed Generation Hope. Can you share more about your new FamilyU Cohort? What are a few of the things institutions can do to better support student parents?
A: We’re really excited about our FamilyU Cohort. It’s a two-year technical assistance cohort for colleges and universities to really enhance their supports for parenting students. It’s all about partnering with higher education institutions to transform their campuses to better serve student parents and to help them graduate—that’s the ultimate outcome that we want to see for this population. What I think is unique about it is that it’s been developed after years of our work working closely with institutions and supporting parenting students here and also across the country. We want to bring more family friendliness to institutional policy and also create some fundamental shifts in campus culture.
Especially right now as we’re having this national conversation on race, I think that institutions really want to put action behind their equity statements. And, as I’ve said time and time again, student parent work is racial justice work. Through FamilyU, we’re going to offer work plans, one-on-one coaching, and work to improve the student parent experience at their institutions. And all of our work is informed by our on-the-ground work supporting student parents, but also through the voices of student parents as we really believe strongly in centering their experiences. We’re really excited about it—applications are open now and are due May 14.
Q: There’s work to be done at the federal policy level, too. In your opinion, what are the most important steps the federal government could take to ensure higher education better serves student parents?
A: We at Generation Hope were really fortunate to provide recommendations to the Biden Administration during the transition and I think one big thing is making sure that this comprehensive higher education agenda really seeks to expand diversity and opportunity which means including the needs of student parents. If we’re not including student parents in agendas and policy-setting, then we’re missing such a huge population that tends to be students of color as well as many low-income and first-gen students. It’s essential that we really address these systemic barriers that stand in their way.
There are other essential supports for student parents that we’d like to see all working together. Making investments in programs like CCAMPIS and other programs that create affordable solutions, we could see more investment there, as well as more support for colleges and universities to provide affordable child care solutions for parenting students. Certainly the expansion of Pell Grants would help alleviate the financial burden of going to college for student parents. We think there’s an opportunity for some federal financial aid policy reform to help students with caregiving responsibilities. We’re also looking at the student loan forgiveness conversation because Black parenting students are at the epicenter of the student debt crisis—they have more student loan debt than any other student group and that’s often not talked about. We’re interested in the free college movement and any opportunities that we have again to remove the financial barriers for parenting students to go to college. And certainly as it relates to COVID-19 relief—we want to see student parents prioritized in relief, not just at the federal level but also at the state level. There’s a real opportunity because this population has such intersectionality with groups that are disproportionately impacted by this crisis.
If I could sum up my wish for federal and local policy change to better support student parents in their higher ed journeys, it would be to make it easier for people to move out of poverty and make it easier for them to overcome racial oppression. If you apply those two things to every problem and every policy decision we make at every level, we would start to see positive change and more college degrees for student parents.