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Mother's Day Issue

Nicole Lynn Lewis, Founder of Generation Hope

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Think back to your teen years and the myriad pressures you faced. Now imagine this: Getting accepted into college and discovering you're pregnant. That's where the road splits, right?

For Nicole Lynn Lewis, that wasn't an option. She decided to continue pursuing her education and be mother, despite the deck being stacked against her—both financially and emotionally. But she did it, earning her degree—with honors—from The College of William & Mary while raising a young daughter, Nerissa. But that's not where her story ends.

Seven years later, in 2010, she founded Generation Hope, a community-based nonprofit that provides mentoring, resources and services to help teen parents become college graduates and help their children get an education too. Lewis is paying it forward in spades, granting other young mothers a bright future of possibilities and similar success stories. We get to know her and her cause here.

Nicole Lynn Lewis with her daughters, Naya, left, and Nerissa

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Q&A

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What are your Mother's Day traditions?
I usually take my four children to spend the day with my mom, and she loves the outdoors and shopping so we usually go on a walk through a park and then look for some bargains! We typically go out to lunch too. This year, I’ll probably send her a little something and make sure we have some virtual time together, and I’m sure my husband will do what he can to pamper me at home. Even though it’s not ideal, I’m just thankful that my family, including my parents, are safe and healthy.

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Best Mother's Day gift received?
A spa gift card from my husband!

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Greatest lesson you learned from your mom?
My mom is such a loving person. She has always taught me to treat people with care and to see the best in people. I credit her with who I am as a mother and how I love on my children.

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And greatest lesson learned from being a mom?
I learn lessons every day! But one big one is because I was a young mom who brought my daughter into the world with really the bare minimum, I learned early on that what children need most is our love and our protection. Everything else is secondary. I remind myself of that when my schedule gets hectic. I try to make sure that my kids always have access to me and that I carve out plenty of quality time for my family. It’s not always easy, but it’s so important.

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What was the inspiration behind Generation Hope?
I started Generation Hope in 2010 because I knew from my college experience that parenting students face unique barriers to completing college—but a college degree has a powerful ripple effect on the opportunity of two generations, both parent and child. Generation Hope surrounds motivated teen parents and their children with the mentors, emotional support, and financial resources that they need to thrive in college and kindergarten, thereby driving a two-generation solution to poverty. Generation Hope engages in local and national advocacy work, amplifying the student-parent voice and centering their experiences. Additionally, Generation Hope leverages its data and best practices to provide colleges with the tools, resources, and support that they need to improve outcomes for student parents.

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Lewis' sons, from left, Drew and Donté Jr.

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Could you tell us about the challenges you faced as a teen mom?
Becoming a mother at 19 was difficult in every way—financially, emotionally, and in terms of the future I wanted to create for my daughter. I fell in love with her immediately, and my motivation to go to college skyrocketed. Like so many of the young parents we work with, I knew that earning a degree would be key to giving her everything she needed to be successful in her own life. But college seemed impossible at the time. I was poor, young, disconnected from family and friends, out of school, and in a really turbulent relationship with her father. I had the potential to go to school, but as is the case for too many young parents, there were no clear paths to get there. All of this was exacerbated by being a young, black woman.
I started at the College of William & Mary when my daughter was just under three months old. Getting there wasn’t easy. I submitted my application while pregnant and without a real place to call home. I didn’t have a plan for paying my tuition or affording books, but I was determined to earn my degree, and that helped me stay the course.

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And how did you overcome the above?
I knew how to advocate for myself, and that was vital in my ability to secure on-campus housing that was really intended for adjunct professors as opposed to undergraduate students as well as additional financial aid. I came into college with many advantages that other young parents don’t have—like both of my parents being college graduates and being raised in middle-class neighborhoods with quality schools and plenty of extracurricular activities. But there were still so many difficult times and long nights trying to figure out how I was going to pay rent and daycare and keep food on the table. On top of that, William & Mary was incredibly rigorous academically, and in the midst of barely making ends meet, I had to find a way to stay on top of all of my coursework. My biggest motivation was my daughter. When things got too difficult, she was my reason to keep going and to somehow figure out how to keep all of the balls in the air.

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How did your experiences inform Generation Hope and its programming?
Graduation day was surreal for me. I graduated with high honors, and Queen Noor of Jordan spoke at my commencement. My daughter greeted me with a big hug after the ceremony, and I was standing there that day with my family thinking, This can’t be real. I was so happy but also sad because I knew my story was rare and didn’t have to be. More young parents could become college graduates with the right supports. I moved up to the D.C. area, got a job, and started working on my master’s degree. I wanted to volunteer with an organization that was helping teen mothers and fathers become college graduates, and none existed in our region and very few across the country. A statistic from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy just floored me: Less than 2% of teen mothers earn a degree before age 30. I wanted to do something about it.

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Tell us about the impact and reach…
Generation Hope serves nearly 100 young parenting students in college in Washington, DC, Maryland, and Virginia each year through our Scholar program, and 30 pre-school-aged children through our Next Generation Academy. Fewer than 2% of women who have a baby by age 18 go on to earn their degree before age 30. Our Scholars, like young parents across the country, face significant barriers to academic achievement including high poverty rates, lack of affordable childcare, housing instability, food scarcity, the need to work — sometimes full time — to provide for their children, and more. These barriers are often long-standing and systemic. Despite these challenges, with Generation Hope support, our Scholars graduate at a rate that is nearly 8 times the graduation rate of single mothers nationwide, and exceeds the rate for all college students. And six months after graduation, 100% of our 2019 graduates were living above the federal poverty line. When we were founded in 2010 we worked with just 7 teen parents. Today, 10 years later, we serve nearly 100 young parents and their children!

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What are some misconceptions about teen pregnancy?
Most teen mothers were living in poverty even before their pregnancies. We have to face some glaring issues of inequality and poverty in this country if we really want to prevent teen pregnancy and ensure that young families—including the children of teen parents—thrive.
People hear that the national teen pregnancy rate has fallen, and that’s true. It has actually fallen drastically for black and Latina girls, but people should know that they are still more than twice as likely as white girls to become pregnant.
Young parents are incredibly driven and smart and want the best for their children. In fact, we know that parenting college students have higher GPAs than their peers. We should do everything we can to ensure that teen mothers and fathers graduate from high school and complete college. We have to rally around them and give them every opportunity to succeed.
We have the honor of walking with young fathers at Generation Hope as they work toward their college degrees. Despite how they’re depicted, they are so committed to their children and to their education. They need and deserve support too.

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“I remind myself of that when my schedule gets hectic. I try to make sure that my kids always have access to me and that I carve out plenty of quality time for my family. It’s not always easy, but it’s so important.”

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If there's one thing you want people to know after reading this…
Think about young mothers and fathers differently and encourage others to do the same. Push past the stereotypes and the stigma and challenge yourself to imagine what is possible for them and their children.

Tips for our readers to get involved?
There are likely organizations within your community that are helping young parents whether it’s providing them with baby supplies or ensuring they earn their high school diplomas. Get involved by volunteering and contributing and try to put your energy into efforts that help them with their socio-economic mobility. Diapers are great and needed, but we also need solutions that help these families succeed economically over the long term.

What is Generation Hope doing in response to the pandemic?
We're continuing to build community among our Scholar families and supporters (virtually) by holding weekly bedtime story hours over Facebook Live every Tuesday at 7:30 pm EDT. We've been inviting lots of prominent voices and education advocates to join us as guest readers, including U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen, who read “House Mouse, Senate Mouse” by Peter W. Barnes, Cheryl Shaw Barnes. We’d love for you and your kiddos to tune in and join us!
You can help our Scholars and their families weather this storm by contributing an item from our Scholar wishlist. From grocery gift cards to diapers, your support makes all the difference! Donate to Generation Hope's general operating fund to help power our rapid response and emergency support to Scholars in light of the coronavirus pandemic. You can find out more about how COVID-19 has impacted the community we serve, and how we’re supporting them at this time, here.

Daughters Naya, left, and Nerissa

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