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Apr 22, 2022

Nicole Lynn Lewis: Helping Teen Parents Navigate College

Heidi Stevens

Nicole Lynn Lewis was a high school senior with big plans for college when she became pregnant.

“I had a positive pregnancy test and a stack of college acceptance letters, and I didn’t see how those things could co-exist,” Lewis said. “I knew my education was going to be crucial to my daughter having the life she deserved, but it was very much uncharted territory.”

She attended William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, where every day, she said, was an exercise in survival. “Navigating higher education on my own. Trying to find allies and champions. Trying to find food, keep a roof over our heads, keep my sanity.”

She graduated with honors in four years, landed a job in public relations and started to look for volunteer opportunities in or around Washington, D.C., helping other young parents navigate college. She couldn’t find any, but her search led her to a sobering statistic: Fewer than 2% of teen moms earn a college degree by age 30.

“We’re up against so much stigma and shame and shaming that surrounds the population we work with. People have very strong views about teen pregnancy and who’s deserving of support.”

“That really fueled my fire.”

In 2010, Lewis founded Generation Hope, a nonprofit organization that provides teen parents with mentors, emotional support and financial resources they need to thrive in college, and provides their children the resources they need to thrive in kindergarten. It’s a two-generation solution to poverty. 

“We know that children of teen parents enter school at lower levels of readiness,” Lewis said. “Working and walking alongside children and parents and families together, you really see how impactful it can be.”

In 2021, Lewis turned her story into an award-winning memoir, “Pregnant Girl: A Story of Teen Motherhood, College, and Creating a Better Future for Young Families.” A great deal of her work, as both an author and the Generation Hope CEO, is educating the public about teen pregnancy and college students who are parents.

“We’re up against so much stigma and shame and shaming that surrounds the population we work with,” she said. “People have very strong views about teen pregnancy and who’s deserving of support.”

She and her colleagues try to illuminate the experiences and humanity of the young parents with whom the work, and the societal forces that can often lead to unplanned pregnancies in teenagers. 

“When I’m talking to different groups, 9 times out of 10 people will say, ‘Why are we rewarding teen parents for their decisions? Why don’t you focus on teen pregnancy prevention?’” Lewis said. “We have students who grew up in the foster system. Pregnancy is not the first thing that’s ever happened to them. Pregnancy is often a symptom of a larger issue.”

The first application she received when she founded Generation Hope was from a 12-year-old girl. 

“My daughter was 11 at the time,” Lewis said. “I was heartbroken. There is a far more complicated story wrapped up in teen pregnancy, and it involves poverty and race and gender and the things we don’t want to talk about, so we make it an easy target. But that’s not going to get us solutions.”

Nor is denying grace and much-needed assistance to people working to chart a healthy, full life for themselves and their children.

Bravo, Generation Hope.


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