Spotlight Exclusives

‘Pregnant Girl’: Telling Teen Parents to ‘Dream Big and Keep Going’

Nicole Lynn Lewis Nicole Lynn Lewis, posted on

The stigma around teen parents has gotten slightly less negative in recent years—but not nearly enough in the view of Nicole Lynn Lewis. Lewis recently published Pregnant Girl, the story of her own experience as a teen mother who persevered to put herself through college and then graduate school. In 2010, Lewis founded Generation Hope, a nonprofit group that helps teenage families in the Washington, D.C., metro area with financial assistance and mentoring to help them thrive in college and help their children succeed in kindergarten. Lewis spoke to Spotlight recently about her book, Generation Hope’s plans for its second decade and the new challenges teen parents have faced during the pandemic. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Tell us how “Pregnant Girl” came to life and what you hope to accomplish with the book.

I wrote Pregnant Girl because many people think they understand and know all there is to know about teen pregnancy and the reality is what we know is usually inaccurate and based on very damaging stereotypes. Having lived through the experience of being a teen mother and putting myself through college and now having started an organization that’s devoted to helping others overcome the many challenges that face student parents, I felt like my story could really be a catalyst for change and could inspire other people to make sure that they’re doing everything they can do to make sure that young families thrive. The pervasive stereotype that is out there is that young parents are lazy and unambitious and are not motivated in terms of their education and creating a better future for their children and I really think that this book helps to defuse those stereotypes and really is a call to action for people to do more.

And do you think that the stereotype has changed or become less pervasive in recent years?

There are some things that have improved. Thirty, forty, fifty years ago, teen pregnancies were really not discussed in public discourse. If a young girl became pregnant, it was a very hushed situation and most times that young woman was sent off to a home for unwed mothers. She kind of disappeared and no one talked about it. Certainly today, it’s much more of a public conversation but in terms of the perception and how we treat young mothers and young fathers, not a lot has changed. We still proscribe their futures. We still tell them that they’re going to fail, that they’re not going to go to college. We don’t ensure that the proper supports are in place for them and their children to really thrive and to be successful. A lot of judgment, a lot of stigmatization—that hasn’t changed and there’s a lot of work we have to do there.

Do you think the media portrayal has improved at all? That’s something we’re very interested in at Spotlight.

I don’t think that the media has really changed in its portrayal of teen parents and teen pregnancy. Even the large platform shows that we have on teen pregnancy are not showing young men and women in that situation as really committed to their education or working really hard to provide for their families. I think some of these shows are back to using the stereotypes that are out there. My organization, Generation Hope, is supporting more than 100 young parents in college and we see them working hard every single day. They’re flying in the faces of these stereotypes that are still really pervasive. Their stories tend to still get overlooked.

Generation Hope is entering its second decade. What are the goals for the second decade of the organization?

The first decade of Generation Hope was really about building the organization brick by brick and making sure we were providing the best support directly to our families in the D.C. metro region. The second decade for us is about building upon that work, building upon our really effective direct service work with families and being able to have a larger impact on the systemic challenges that face this population. We have a kind of national agenda that is really two-fold. One is to partner with colleges and universities across the country to really help them create campuses that are more supportive of parenting students and help them get to graduation. Most higher-ed institutions really aren’t thinking about student parents even though they make up about 22 percent of all undergraduate students across the country. And they’re not tracking the parenting status of their students, so a lot of institutions are flying blind when it comes to who this population is, what their needs are and how to help them really make it to the graduation stage.

The second part of this work is a policy advocacy agenda that focuses on federal and local policies that will really remove barriers for this population. We’re looking at the affordability and accessibility of higher education and we’re looking at the affordability and accessibility of child care. And then we will also be looking at, what are those drivers for economic mobility for parenting students?

The third piece I should mention is that we’re releasing a bunch of reports over the next few years that are really about illuminating the experience of young parents and parenting college students to help others have a glimpse into what would help families as they are working toward their education.

That’s an amazing statistic—I’m sure you get the same reaction to that from most people. I had no idea that the number of student parents was that high.

Yes, it’s about one in five college students across the country and when we look at it through a race equity lens we see that almost half of all black female college students across the country are parenting. These are significant numbers and for anybody who cares about addressing racial disparities in education, this is a population that you want to be paying attention to.

In terms of the pandemic experience, I’m sure your students have had a very difficult time but I’m also wondering whether some of the changes that colleges, universities, and community colleges had to make to become more accessible could be helpful going forward to student parents?

It depends on the student. We have definitely had students in our program who have really appreciated the move to virtual because of the challenge of transportation for example. When I was in college, and I talk about it in Pregnant Girl, I was commuting 150 miles every day to get to class and drop my daughter off at daycare. We have students in our program who have to travel for hours and take different modes of transportation just to get to campus and drop off their child. Certainly, the move to virtual for some of us has been very beneficial. But other students find it challenging to really engage with their professors and get the most out of their learning experience without being in a classroom. It’s really tough for them to be able to engage in a virtual setting. And so, in other ways, it’s been a struggle. The other thing I like to remind people of is that even when you’re doing virtual learning, if you have a little one, you need child care. It’s really difficult to bounce a toddler on your knee and fill up a sippy cup when you have to be in front of your computer for eight hours straight being sure that you are tuned into all your classes. And that’s in addition to the digital divide, which is impacting a lot of our students. So, the answer to your question is yes and no.

In terms of other issues your students have been struggling with during the pandemic, I’m guessing child care and food insecurity are at the top of the list?

Yes, what we’ve really been trying to talk to people about is that student parents and young parents were really in crisis prior to the pandemic; they were already disproportionately experiencing housing insecurity, food insecurity, lack of child care, even experiencing mental health challenges and domestic violence, which is a huge issue with our population. So really, the virus and its impact just exacerbated the crisis that our students were already experiencing. Helping them try to navigate COVID has been making sure we were ramping up all of the supports that we already had. We already have an emergency fund in place, but we worked to make sure we were giving our families even more access to emergency grants. We already had a mental health person on staff who was able to provide help for both parent and child but we had to make sure she had the capacity to provide even more sessions. For many of our students and families, it was just a lot of things converging at the same time, and that doesn’t even include the students who had the virus hit their families.

In terms of your federal priorities, are there things the federal government has done during this period that you would like to see continued, whether that’s the expanded fruit and vegetable benefit for WIC or the expanded Child Tax Credit?

Absolutely, I think we’ve seen some really wonderful things that have been rolled out in the past year and a half that we would love to see continue. We were really encouraged early on by just the influx of dollars for emergency funds going to colleges and universities for students. We’ve always had that at Generation Hope, with a 72-hour turnaround for students, but for years it was rare to find it at other institutions. The Child Tax Credit is another great example of again, funding going to those who need it most with a lot of flexibility. And then I think also, the talk around offering free community college is something that we really want to see. The largest percentage of parenting college students attend two-year schools, so being able to provide a free two-year experience and alleviate those costs for the population we serve would be really, really important.

There have been a lot of things, but really, it’s also been just an awareness that things have to change and paying attention to populations that have been really overlooked for far too long.

There’s also been substantial evidence that direct cash payments to distressed communities really works.

Exactly. And I talk in the book about the constant need that I had to prove my worthiness for resources and support and the hoops that I had to go through. And I think what’s really important for us to step back and think about in terms of how people have been able to use these supports during the past year and a half is trusting people. Not only providing cash but trusting people to use it in a way that they think is best for their families.

Do you see any trends in single fatherhood? It seems that it’s more talked about

I wouldn’t say that there has been a major trend or narrative that I’ve seen during COVID—we know that the pandemic has disproportionately impacted mothers and young mothers in particular, and single mothers and black and brown mothers. I have a lot in the book about the importance of young fathers, of rallying around them and supporting them. One of the other damaging narratives out there is that teen fathers don’t care about their families, they’re not committed to their education and they’re not committed to being fathers. We see, in our program, fathers who are just amazing. They fly in the face of those stereotypes.

What would you want a teen parent to take away from reading “Pregnant Girl”?

I would want them to be encouraged. There are so many negative messages out there, there are so many people telling them that they can’t go to college, that they can’t be successful, that they’re not valued. And I really hope that Pregnant Girl honors their journey and encourages them to dream big and keep going and that there are people out there who are really rooting for them.

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