Anyone who has tried to function on little sleep, been bombarded with the tantrums of a toddler, or picked up an entire dinner off the kitchen floor knows that motherhood is challenging. Imagine if calculus, prom, and high-school politics were thrown into this equation. While it might seem an impossible setup, know that right now there’s a teen mom burrowing her face in a textbook, cramming for an exam.
Nicole Lynn Lewis lived that scenario. She found out she was pregnant when she was a senior in high school. “I knew right then that college was no longer a given, that I would have to work twice as hard to get in, and stay in and graduate,” says Lewis, now 34. “But I did not think it was impossible, and I can attribute that to the values instilled in me by my parents. That bullheaded determination I had meant ignoring the statistics on teenage mothers, the ones that said I was likely to fail—instead, I pushed through.”
Fear, however, was a major factor. “I was a new freshman on campus in college, with a three-month-old baby at home, feeling out of place and alone.”
“I had days without sleep and sometimes only enough food for my daughter. It was exhausting, trying to balance motherhood and schoolwork,” says Lewis, whose daughter Nerissa is now 15. “But even on the roughest days, I would look at her and see my biggest motivator, and I knew she deserved the best and that a degree would help provide a better life.”
Not only did Lewis graduate from the College of William & Mary with high honors and go on to earn a master’s degree from George Mason University, she was designated a CNN Hero for her work in helping young parents pursue their own educations. Lewis started Generation Hope, a nonprofit organization, five years ago, assisting teenage parents by offering tuition support and mentoring.
“I felt this tremendous desire to change the perception,” says Lewis, who is married and also mom to a five-year-old daughter, Naya. “I know that if we help teen parents become college graduates, we immediately improve the outcome of their children.” Her cause is particularly relevant here in Washington, where teen-pregnancy rates are high. The very first application for the Generation Hope program came from a young woman who found out she was pregnant at the age of 12.
For Ericka Harley, one of Generation Hope’s graduates, the program was life-altering. “I wasn’t just a student or a teen mom,” she says of the general labels applied to young mothers. “I was Ericka, who is Mom to Aa’Niyah. I was Ericka, who graduated from Trinity Washington University after attending full-time and working full-time. I was Ericka, who always had a support system.” Recently, Harley started working at Generation Hope as Lewis’s assistant. “I met amazing women here, on my same path, who became a community of people because of their belief in each one of us in this program,” says Harley. “I am so thankful for Nicole and her story—and the fire within her that led to creating Generation Hope.”