Young parenthood is already hard enough. But the stigmas that young parents face amplify the barriers in part because their victory stories defying expectations against all odds aren’t applauded enough.
For many parents, they know education is the key to granting them a life for the betterment of themselves. One woman, who has dedicated her time to ensuring that parents are guaranteed to get an education is Nicole Lynn Lewis.
As a teen parent herself, Nicole empathizes with the struggles and has succeeded in spite of the obstacles. Now, she’s created a program, Generation Hope, dedicated to helping other young parents get a chance at an education, and an overall better way of life.
Her Agenda spoke with the CEO about her journey as a teen mom, and her pioneering business, ‘Generation Hope.’
Her Agenda: I want to start off this interview just by talking about you and your story. Talk to us about some of your earliest motherhood experiences as a young mom.
Nicole Lynn Lewis: I got pregnant during my senior year of high school. [And just for some context] I was raised by two college graduates and lived in a middle-class family. From a very young age, my parents prepared my sister and I for college as the next step after high school. Education was a big deal in our home, it was very much emphasized and encouraged for us to do well in school. During my senior year of high school, I had just turned in a bunch of college applications and had just received back several acceptance letters. I was in the last few months of my senior year at this pivotal time when I was supposed to be transitioning, and graduating from high school, and then going on to college. Then I discovered I was pregnant. All of my preparation and all of my plans were now really threatened and jeopardized by the fact that I was going to be a young mother. I knew that college was the best way for me to actually provide for my child that was going to be coming into the world. But I didn't know how I was going to get there. I didn't have a clear path to get to college. All of the young women I knew that got pregnant in high school either disappeared, or they were working in food service or retail, but not going off to college.
I left my parents' home in the midst of the discovery of my pregnancy. I ended up living pretty much place to place, with my daughter's father. Sometimes we slept in the car in the high school parking lot. Sometimes we were couchsurfing. I found out that I was accepted into the College of William and Mary when I was living day to day in a Motel Six and I was eight months pregnant. Life for me was very much in survival mode. Day by day, trying to take care of myself while I was pregnant, trying to make sure there was food to eat and a roof over our heads. It was an incredibly scary time. I started at William and Mary when my daughter was a little under three months old.
Her Agenda: I know of a couple of women in my life who were teen moms, and had a village around them. For you, what did your village look like and consist of?
Nicole Lynn Lewis: [I had] to piecemeal my village together. I didn't have anybody in Williamsburg near campus that was family or a friend. Over the years I had to find my people. I had to find a financial aid counselor who was a huge support to me. She, of course, was able to unlock resources so that I could not only pay tuition, but also be able to pay rent, put a roof over our heads, and have food on the table. I ended up leaving my daughter's father, right after my freshman year. So I was a single mom, and I was trying to figure out how to make ends meet.
My financial aid counselor Tammy Curry ended up being a huge support to me and a part of my village for sure. But then I met wonderful girlfriends as I was pursuing my degree who were at William and Mary, and they essentially became aunties to my daughter. If I needed to take a midterm, and she didn't have daycare that day, they would watch her for me. Or sometimes if I just needed a break, they'd watch her for a couple of hours. But it was really hard because at William and Mary, I didn't always feel comfortable sharing the fact that I was a parent with my professors. It was hard to create a village in college as a young mother because you didn't know how people would react, especially people in positions of power who had the ability to make or break your situation.
Her Agenda: What were some limitations that were set on you as a teen mom at the time? And how were you able to defy that?
Nicole Lynn Lewis: As I found out I was pregnant, I felt the limitations that we place on young mothers, which is, that they're not going to go to college, they're not going to be successful, they'll be a failure, they’ll live in poverty. I knew that those limitations were real in terms of how people perceived me, but also in terms of how our society is set up in a way where those limitations are placed on young women in that situation in a way that keeps resources and support from them. So our policies and systems are set up to reinforce those limitations, as opposed to challenging those limitations. But as a young mother, trying to go to college, I could see in real-time that there weren't these structures intended for me to succeed. There was no program at William and Mary that was really focused on helping young mothers or young parents get their degrees, there wasn't something in the community that was really designed to ensure that young families have economic mobility and that parents can get their education.
For me in terms of how I defied them, I tried to keep my daughter as my Northstar. Just knowing that it was really important for me to be successful so that she had a better life. I wanted her to have the opportunity to pursue her own education, I wanted her to have the opportunity to have a fulfilling career, to travel, to have to be able to live her life to the fullest.
Her Agenda: When did you know Generation Hope was something that needed to be created?
Nicole Lynn Lewis: I was overcome with two feelings, one of just how surreal it was to actually achieve something that people tell you is impossible, but then I also felt an overwhelming desire to give back. I wanted other young parents to actually have support and systems in place, so it wouldn't be so hard for them. I moved up to the DC region, I was working for an insurance company, I was doing PR for this huge national insurance company, and flying on Warren Buffett's jet meeting with VPs of a billion-dollar company. I could see how much my life had been transformed by my college degree.
I was also pursuing my master's degree from George Mason University, and I was looking for a nonprofit that was doing this work to help teen parents become college graduates. None existed in the DC region, and very few across the country. I knew that this organization needed to exist in the world. Because I had evidence in my own life of how it really changed so much for us. I knew that the DC region, like many communities across the country, was really grappling with ‘How do you address poverty? How do you help families actually move into family-sustaining jobs? How do you solve the housing crisis and child hunger?’ And I also knew that this work is so connected to those issues that many communities are grappling with.
Her Agenda: What are some testimonials from parents of the program that has made you not only proud of their success but the creation of Generation Hope?
Nicole Lynn Lewis: Oh, gosh, there are so many testimonials [laughs], and so many moments that make me proud and happy and excited! We brought our board and staff out to New Orleans last week to continue to meet the community and build with the community members out there.
I bumped into one of the alums of our DC Scholar Program, just in this hotel in New Orleans. She's a nurse now and she was at a conference through her nursing program. She was talking about how well she's doing, how she just put an offer in on her first home, and how well her kids are doing. She recently got married and just got a promotion at work. It was just overwhelming to see her out in the world thriving as a young professional. She talked to our board of directors for a few minutes, And she said ‘I couldn't have done all of this without Generational Hope.’ And I think that was just a recent moment of being out in the world and seeing our alums doing incredible things, and to know that we played a small part in that, has been overwhelming.
Her Agenda: In terms of intersectionality, how has your program benefited and helped teen dads? Are any differences and challenges/sacrifices exclusively to teen fathers?
Nicole Lynn Lewis: We have served teen fathers from our inception. It has been challenging to get in front of this population because there's such a dearth of programming for young men and particularly for young men of color. We can go into a high school that offers support for teen pregnancy and teen parents. And most likely, if they have a group for us to talk to, it will most likely be that many of those students will be teen mothers. So “How do you get in front of a group of fathers?” has been one of our biggest questions that we have been working on over the past 13 years.
Thankfully, we have been able to bring some amazing dads into the program over the years who fly in the face of the stereotypes that many people have about teen fathers. They are incredibly dedicated to their children and incredibly dedicated to their education. We have seen just how fulfilling it is to support fathers in this work. Because we serve both teen moms and dads, we have been able to support whole families. Even folks who are not together, but are co-parenting. Again, I think the outcomes for that child immediately skyrocket. It’s really exciting to see. We believe wholeheartedly in the importance of supporting fathers, and we try to elevate that in as many conversations as we can, because people often think of mothers when they think of teen pregnancy, and we have to really encourage people to think bigger to include fathers in their engagement and support efforts.
Her Agenda: What is your motto?
Nicole Lynn Lewis: I would say My motto is ‘Why not?’ I think I have a long history of challenging the norms and the ways that things have always been done and the assumptions that we make about what's possible. So whenever I'm moving through the world, and I see something that needs to change, I'm always like, ‘Why can't this change? Why not? Why don't we try it? Why don't we challenge the way that things have been done?’ And I think that's the only way that real change happens is when we challenge the norms, and we end the assumptions that people have about the world. That's where I think you get real authentic change.