NICOLE LYNN LEWIS ON GOING BEYOND EDUCATION

ABOUT THE COMPASS LEADERS

EdLoC’s Third Way Values drive all we do- they ground us in our work and help us chart a path forward. Within our membership there are leaders whose example serves as a compass, a North Star, guiding us in our own work. Our Compass Leaders series is a chance to see what our values look like in action and to lift up members who are truly exemplifying one of our values in all they do.

This month, we focus on the Third Way Value of Going Beyond Education and the important work Nicole Lynn Lewis is doing through her organization Generation Hope. After becoming a parenting college student, she was inspired to think outside of the box around traditional supports, and create an organization that would meet the diverse needs of college students who are parenting. Because of her tailored approach, her organization reports a graduation rate that is almost double the national average for low income students, and almost nine times the graduation rate of single mothers nationwide.

ABOUT NICOLE

Tell us about yourself. Where did you grow up? What was your educational experience like?

My parents, who are both college graduates, always raised my sister and me with the understanding and expectation that we’d go to college. They didn’t have the financial means to pay for our tuition so they really pushed us to do well academically from a young age in hopes that we’d earn scholarships. Growing up, I loved school, particularly reading and writing and I was a strong student and took many honors classes. I was on track to go to college and that was always a part of my plan.

What inspired you to found Generation Hope?

I had just been accepted into several colleges when I got pregnant my senior year in high school. I was an honor-roll student, but my pregnancy made people look at me as a lost cause. As far as they were concerned, college was out of the question. People just didn’t put “teen mother” and “college” together. But my pregnancy made college even more important to me and more urgent because I knew it was my best chance at providing for my baby. I started at the College of William & Mary when my daughter was almost 3 months old as a full-time freshman with no idea how I was going to pay for my tuition, my books, or daycare. I graduated with High Honors four years later after many financial and emotional ups and downs, and my daughter walked across the graduation stage with me. That experience was transformative for me and for my daughter, but it also ignited a fire in me to ensure that other young parents — both mothers and fathers — have the wrap-around services and resources that they need to become college graduates. When I saw that less than 2% of teen mothers earn a college degree before age 30, I was determined to change that statistic. I started Generation Hope in 2010 to do just that.

Why is it so important for people in education to look beyond just schools when considering policy, practice, and resources? And what can we learn from your work?

We bring our whole selves to any environment that we enter, including school. The idea that a curriculum or new facility or the right teacher will alone solve the glaring achievement gaps for Black and Brown students is offbase. Instead, they represent critical pieces that must fit together in a larger puzzle to comprise our ed reform approach. Young people are shaped by their experiences at home, in their communities, and moving through various systems, and our solutions have to take their entire experience and circumstances into account. At Generation Hope, we have a holistic approach to educational achievement for young parents and their children. We go way beyond academic advising. Our case management addresses anything that might hinder a young parent’s ability to succeed from assisting with tuition costs to offering support in situations of domestic violence and keeping their heat on in the winter. Now, with the addition of our early childhood program, we’re supporting their child’s early education needs as well. It’s a whole-family, #2gen approach.

For the past 10 years, we have worked directly with young families. The next important step for us is to begin addressing the larger, systemic issues that hinder the success of millions of young families and student parents across the country. This means working with the higher-ed field to help them better serve parenting college students and creating a policy and advocacy agenda driven by our Scholars to amplify their needs.

How are you seeing the COVID crisis impact your families? What should decision-makers in higher ed consider?

COVID-19 has exacerbated the crises that already existed for young families and parenting college students such as food insecurity, housing instability, lack of childcare, and job loss.  We’re seeing that our Scholars are being pushed to the brink by the pandemic. Several have lost their jobs or had their hours drastically cut. They are juggling their own online classes with their children’s digital learning, trying to meet the instructional needs of multiple children or children with learning or cognitive disabilities, struggling to access proper technology, experiencing higher rates of domestic violence and depression, and scrambling to find summer internships to replace internships that have been canceled by employers.  Some of our Scholars are also allied-health majors and are working on the front lines with COVID-19 patients as they try to navigate these challenges. It’s a really hard time for all of them.

We recently released this report that sheds light on the higher-ed experiences of student parents.  We’re hoping that it will help those working in higher ed really consider the needs of this population as they try to ensure that students re-enroll in the fall.  Student parents account for 1 in 5 college students across the country and have higher GPAs than their non-parenting peers, which means the future of higher ed depends on how well we respond and adapt to their needs coming out of the pandemic and over the long term.

What are key policies or practices that would improve things dramatically for your families, what would they be?

We see so many opportunities for institutional policies and state and national policies when it comes to removing barriers for student parents. 

For Institutional policies, I would recommend that: 

  • Colleges and universities start collecting data on how many student parents they have enrolled. We know that what doesn’t get measured, doesn’t get prioritized. The majority of institutions don’t collect or track this data, which means at any given time, they don’t know how many of their students are parenting.
  • Schools prioritize the creation of policies that embrace parenting, such as clear guidance on whether students can bring their children to class in the case of a childcare hiccup like this sample syllabus language from George Mason University. These policies can mean the difference between coming to class or missing vital instruction.

At the state and national level, we need:

  • Congress to significantly increase Pell Grant funding.  More tuition assistance will reduce the financial barriers to a college degree for student parents — something that we believe will be even more urgent as we weather COVID-19.
  • States to waive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program work requirements for student parents attending college. States should also allow students to meet their Temporary Assistance for Needy Families work requirement by attending college classes and studying. This will ensure that student parents can keep food on the table and take care of their family while they work to earn a postsecondary credential. 

We want to thank Nicole for taking the time to share these insights with us. Be on the lookout for Nicole’s book, Pregnant Girl, which will be published by Beacon Press in 2021. To read more about her book, visit here.

About EdLoC

Education Leaders of Color (EdLoC) is a community of more than 300 leaders of color working to elevate the leadership, voices and influence of people of color in education and to leading more inclusive efforts to improve education. EdLoC aims to advance a third way that breaks through the polarizing divides that have consumed efforts to improve public education and to forge the alliances needed to realize and sustain EdLoC’s vision of providing low-income children of color expansive and substantive opportunities for the highest levels of academic and economic attainment.