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Former 'Pregnant Girl' Builds Support To Help Other Teen Moms

When Nicole Lynn Lewis got pregnant in high school, she thought it might end her dream of going to college and having a career. She felt ashamed, in part because of how people regarded her as a pregnant Black teenager. Lewis, who is now in her 40s, was named a CNN Hero in 2014. Last year, she was named one of the inaugural awardees of the Black Voices for Black Justice Fund in recognition of her work addressing structural and systemic racism in America. Her new memoir is called Pregnant Girl: A Story of Teen Motherhood, College, and Creating a Better Future for Young Families.

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Knowing firsthand the obstacles that teenage mothers face, my guest Nicole Lynn Lewis founded the group Generation Hope, which helps teen parents with financial assistance and mentoring to help them thrive in college and help their children thrive in kindergarten. Lewis got pregnant in high school and thought it might end her dream of going to college and having a career. She felt ashamed, in part because of how people regarded her as a pregnant Black teenager. She thought people always assumed the worst about her, constantly wanting her to prove her worthiness. Was she worthy of opportunities, of an education?

In the hospital when it was time to give birth, she says nurses assumed she had a history of drugs because of her age and the color of her skin. When she moved out of her parents' home to live with her boyfriend, they were basically homeless. In spite of being pregnant, she had to sleep on the floors of people they knew. She later learned homelessness is not uncommon for pregnant teens.

But she managed to start college while being the single mother of a 3-month-old child. She started Generation Hope in 2010. Four years later, she was named a CNN Hero. In 2018, George Mason University, where she got her graduate degree, named her one of their top 50 exemplar alumni. Last year she was named one of 31 inaugural awardees of the National Black Voices for Black Justice Fund in recognition of her work addressing structural and systemic racism in America. She's just written a new memoir called "Pregnant Girl."

Nicole Lynn Lewis, welcome to FRESH AIR. So you write that people often wonder, why don't teenage girls use birth control so they don't get pregnant? And you point out that teenage girls don't always have control over their bodies. Explain what you mean by that.

NICOLE LYNN LEWIS: The World Health Organization released a report several years ago, and in the report, they talked about the fact that adolescent pregnancy is more about a lack of choices than a deliberate choice. And that has always really stuck out to me as a great way to really reframe the way that we think about teen pregnancy and young women who find themselves in this situation.

There's a sense of powerlessness that I think is happening for young people all across the country. And what we see is that, you know, even access to birth control is a challenge for many young people. Having quality, effective health care and being able to access that is a challenge. And so I think we have to really start to understand the underlying issues that are at play that really rob young people of their ability to make their own decisions about their bodies and their lives.

GROSS: Let's talk about your story. Would you describe your parents as middle-class?

LEWIS: I would, yes - came from a two-parent, middle-class home, both of my parents college-educated, definitely didn't want for anything growing up. But certainly we weren't what you would call rich - but, you know, definitely grew up in a comfortable home in that sense, in terms of having what I needed.

GROSS: Your father taught at a college. Your mother was a graphic designer, an artist, who also taught in public school. Your father loved jazz, and you say his record collection was the soundtrack of your childhood, whereas your mother's art was the visual backdrop. Your father is Black. Your mother is white. And you say that they talked about race and politics all the time, and they talked to you about issues like you were an adult, like you could understand and participate in the discussions. On the other hand, they fought all the time, and their arguments really frightened you. And you think that that affected your desire, your need, to really fall in love in high school. What do you see as the connection?

LEWIS: I think that I just never felt completely stable. I never felt like I could anchor myself in safety to something. You know, when you're a child and you grow up in a home where there's constant fighting, it can be extremely difficult to feel secure and safe. And I grew up, I think, constantly looking for that. And when I got to high school, I found that in this really tumultuous relationship. And it was extremely unhealthy, but I felt anchored to someone and to something that I felt could protect me. And I think that was a desire that came out of that instability that I felt, you know, growing up as a child at home.

GROSS: The boy you fell in love with - Rakim (ph), who became the father of your first child - he was a star football player in high school. He dreamed of an NFL career of mansions, but he made a living as a drug dealer in high school and in junior high, too. And, you know, he told you he sold marijuana, but other people told you he sold other drugs, too. He was very cool, very confident. Did the confidence that he gave off make you confident in him, too? Did you buy into his confidence?

LEWIS: Oh, 100%, 100%. I mean, it was contagious. It was infectious. You know, it was - his sense of self and his confidence in his ability to, you know, make it to the NFL and to do all of those things was - it was something that you wanted to be around. And I found it exciting, and I felt like we were both working towards these exciting goals together. And so absolutely, I wanted to be connected to that.

GROSS: So I'm going to ask you the question that probably a lot of people have asked you, and I don't mean this in a judgmental way, but when you started having sex with him, had you thought about using birth control?

LEWIS: I had. In all honesty, I hadn't had a ton of conversations with people in my life about birth control. It was just not something that we talked about. And so I was really going off of, you know, what my friends were doing and also the little bit that I had learned in our sex ed classes in school. The most talked-about birth control was really condoms. I don't think that I had many friends who were even on birth control pills, and condoms were really, in our circle, something that you use sometimes and other times, you may not. So I just didn't have a ton of information, and I certainly didn't have access at that point to, you know, birth control pills or other forms of contraception.

GROSS: Did your mother not give you the talk about not getting pregnant?

LEWIS: No (laughter), she did not. That is not something that we ever talked about.

GROSS: So when it did happen to you, when you did get pregnant, what went through your mind at first?

LEWIS: I think instantaneously I felt completely like a failure. I felt instantaneously I went from good to bad. You know, I felt in that moment as I watched those two pink lines show up on that test, you know, on the counter of our - of my bathroom, that I was now in a different category as an individual and as a person, that I would forever be in that category of, you know, someone who had made all the wrong decisions, someone who was not going to be successful. And I knew that pregnancy was going to be something I couldn't hide, you know, that everyone would know that I was in this different place as a person now. And that was extremely strong and absolutely in an instant I felt that.

GROSS: What was your boyfriend's reaction?

LEWIS: You know, he was not as upset, and I think part of that was because, you know, he was in a different place in many ways. He had these extravagant dreams. He was this popular football player. But I think he was also very lonely and really did not see a future for himself in terms of, you know, growing to old age. And, you know, oftentimes, he talked about dying. He talked about not making it to, you know, see 21. And so I think, for him, as a young Black man, the fact that he was having a child gave him a sense of permanence. It made him feel like there was something in the world that he could be anchored to and something that he could leave behind. And so I remember him being a bit happy about the fact that we were going to bring this life into the world.

GROSS: Considering how worried you were about the impact being pregnant and becoming a teenage mother was going to have on your life, did you consider an abortion?

LEWIS: I didn't. And I just somehow always knew that abortion was not something that I would want to do. And it wasn't because I didn't have friends who had made that choice and that decision. I knew a very close friend who had got an abortion in the seventh grade. And so it was not like it was something that wasn't happening around me. But I always just had a sense for myself that that was not something that was an option for me.

GROSS: What was your parents' reaction?

LEWIS: I didn't tell them right away. I wanted to - and this is kind of the way my brain worked and continues to work. I wanted to have some sort of game plan, you know, for how I was going to make it as a young mom. I didn't want to drop the news and not have some sort of path that I felt I could take to make things right. And so I waited several weeks before I shared it with anyone, any adult. And I remember I at first told a teacher at school. And it wasn't a teacher that I was particularly close to. And I think that's part of the reason why I felt safe enough to share with her, because if she was negative in her reaction, you know, it wouldn't hurt as much. And she ended up being very supportive and kind of held me. And we cried in her office at school. And then she told me, you need to tell your mom.

And it was something I had been wrestling with for weeks and just feeling like I was holding this incredible secret whenever we were around each other. And it was getting to be too hard, you know, to hold that. You know, I was always very close with my mom and wanted to share this with her. And so I called her at school, which, in retrospect, was probably - you know, she worked at a school. As you said, she was an art teacher.

So I called her at work, which, in retrospect, was probably not the best way to share that news with her. And she knew. I mean, I - when she picked up the phone, I was crying. And she said, are you pregnant? And I said, yes. And she said, we'll talk about it when we get home. And that was the way that I shared it with her. And I could hear in her voice, you know, her voice breaking. And I just knew how painful it must have been to hear those words.

GROSS: We need to take a short break here. So let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Nicole Lynn Lewis. Her new memoir is called "Pregnant Girl." We'll be right back after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN LAGE GROUP'S "TELEGRAM")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Nicole Lynn Lewis. Her new memoir, "Pregnant Girl," is about getting pregnant in high school, all the difficulties she faced as a single, teenaged mother and how she managed to put herself through college, then grad school. She's the founder and CEO of Generation Hope, which helps motivated teen parents and their children with financial resources and mentoring, to help parents thrive in college and help their children thrive in kindergarten.

So we were talking about how you got pregnant in high school when you were 17. What grade were you in?

LEWIS: I was a senior, senior in high school.

GROSS: OK. And then you lost the baby around four months. Do I have that right?

LEWIS: Yeah, about three - a little over three months.

GROSS: Yeah. And it sounds like you had this really, probably, very confusing mixture of relief and grief. Can you describe that mix for us?

LEWIS: Yeah. I thought that really describing that was important because, one, miscarriage is just not talked about enough. And it's so common. And I think there's so much shame associated with miscarriage for women at any age that I thought it was important to really explore that a bit and what it felt like to go through that as a young woman. You know, I have that chapter. It's called "Red." And I thought that was a really good way to describe just the rawness of that moment for me. And what I think we don't talk about at all is when it happens to you as a young woman, you know, as a teenager.

And there's so much shame in becoming pregnant. And then when you lose the baby, there's the shame and the blame that you kind of put on yourself and thinking that you did something wrong to lose the pregnancy. And you can't talk to people about it because people feel like it shouldn't have come - you shouldn't have had a pregnancy in the first place, right? And so you're ashamed to even feel something for the baby that you lost. And so there's this silencing that happens around miscarriage for young women that I thought was really important.

For me, as you said, I felt a bit of relief because this baby had turned my life upside down. It had devastated my network, my support system. It had completely thrown off course the goals that I had in terms of college and for myself. And then on the other hand, I had grown attached to this little life that was growing inside of me and had come to really care for it and love it and wanted to meet this baby and was worried about, you know, how I had contributed to maybe that baby not surviving. So it was a really confusing mix of emotions that took me to a very dark place in the midst of it, that it was hard to kind of climb out of.

GROSS: What had been happening during that short pregnancy that made you think that you might have contributed to the miscarriage?

LEWIS: Well, I wasn't eating well. You know, we were living place to place, sometimes sleeping in my boyfriend's car. We didn't have money for food, for housing, so certainly didn't feel like I was taking care of myself. We were fighting constantly and just, you know, always kind of this upheaval and this chaos happening around us. And there were times where he - my boyfriend was just absent for days. You know, I wouldn't know where he was, and I'd be worried. And all of those things were happening. So emotionally and physically, I felt like there were things that I might have done that contributed to that loss.

GROSS: After the miscarriage, you decide - and I don't remember how long after this it was, but you decided you were going to use birth control and get the pill. But you also thought that you couldn't tell your boyfriend. What were your fears about telling him that you were going to start using the pill?

LEWIS: My fear was that he would get angry. You know, we had talked a lot about having another baby because we were both so crushed by the miscarriage. And, you know, something that we had been envisioning, we had envisioned that we would have a baby coming into the world. And so we both had talked about it. And I somewhere along the line kind of realized, you know what? I'd like to focus on getting my degree. We can still have a baby at some point, but maybe it's best for us to wait.

You know, we didn't have stable housing. We didn't have money. We didn't have education. We had both graduated from high school, but, you know, that was really all we had. And for me, it was an opportunity now to go to school. It was an opportunity to go to college. And I was worried that he would become very angry and it would cause a real issue on top of many issues in our relationship.

GROSS: You later learned that there's a word for that, and it's called reproductive coercion. Do you want to say a little bit more about that?

LEWIS: Yeah. I mean, I think this is another aspect of teen pregnancy that many people don't know about, which is that, you know, you often, as a young woman, are in these relationships where you're being pressured by your partner to get pregnant. And oftentimes it's not because your partner is, like, so excited about settling down and starting a family. It's more about the control that your partner can exert over you with a pregnancy and making sure that you stay with them, making sure that you stay home, making sure that you aren't working or pursuing your dreams, all of these various things that they find intimidating or a threat to the relationship.

And we see that every day at Generation Hope in so many situations where we're supporting young parents whose children are the products of that reproductive coercion. And I think it's - again, it's something that - many people, when we think about teen pregnancy, we really have no clue what's going on in these relationships with young people. And it is happening every day.

GROSS: So after you had your miscarriage when you were in high school, you decided to use birth control. You got the pill, and then you got pregnant in spite of that. What happened?

LEWIS: I was on a type of birth control that really requires you in the first two weeks to use backup contraception, and the doctor did not communicate that to me. And so I got pregnant in the first couple of weeks on the pill. And, you know, it was kind of, like, despite my best efforts to take back control of my body and my life, I found myself pregnant again.

And I think, you know, it's something that many young mothers experience is this lack of information when it comes to health care, a lack of access to long-acting, effective contraception. And again, these are things that play into teen pregnancy. These are some of the factors that lead to teen pregnancy, particularly in communities of color. And I saw that and experienced it firsthand.

GROSS: Well, we need to take another break here, so let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Nicole Lynn Lewis, author of the new memoir "Pregnant Girl." We'll be back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Nicole Lynn Lewis. Her new memoir, "Pregnant Girl," is about getting pregnant in high school and the difficulties she faced as a single teenage mother. She managed to put herself through college, then grad school. Knowing the social stigma and the financial problems so many teenage mothers face, she founded the group Generation Hope, which helps motivated teen parents and their children with financial resources and mentoring to help the parents thrive in college and their children thrive in kindergarten.

So let's get back to your story. You were basically homeless during much of your pregnancy. And you write that homelessness and teen pregnancy are really intertwined. Say some more about that, about the connection.

LEWIS: Yeah. I mean, first, I think, you know, we have to kind of name the fact that there are many young people who are homeless even before a pregnancy comes into the picture. You know, this really speaks to these underlying issues that are at play in young people's lives before a pregnancy. And poverty is a big one. And, you know, we have to stop this kind of framing of the issue of teen pregnancy as being that, you know, everything is going well in a young person's life, they become pregnant, and then they become homeless, and then they go into poverty. What is often happening is that young people are in these housing insecure, food insecure situations - really dark situations, challenging, you know, family situations that - where a pregnancy is a symptom of those larger issues that were at play in their lives a long time ago.

And so housing insecurity and teen pregnancy are connected because sometimes it's already happening in the life of that young person before the pregnancy. Sometimes it happens as a result of the pregnancy. I talked about, you know, there are some families or parents that say, you have to leave now that you're pregnant, and they kick, you know, these young people out on the streets. And then sometimes as you're trying to provide for your children, just housing affordability is such a challenge. And as a young parent with maybe a high school diploma and more than likely not a college degree or a post-secondary credential, you know, housing becomes incredibly difficult. So it's deeply intertwined with teen pregnancy.

GROSS: Did you have postpartum depression? Because you write that, you know, people don't talk about postpartum depression in teenagers. What was your experience?

LEWIS: I didn't have postpartum depression. But I remember distinctly - you know, my mother stayed with us for a week after I gave birth. And I don't know what I would have done without her, quite frankly, because my daughter's father was pretty absent. And I remember, you know, it's this beautiful May day, saying goodbye to her, and her driving off. And I'm standing there in the sunshine outside of our apartment building. We'd finally gotten, you know, a place to stay. And I had this, you know, healthy newborn baby waiting for me back in the apartment. And, you know, things were looking somewhat, you know, like they were going to go the right way in terms of me getting back - going to college. And I was bawling. I was crying on the sidewalk outside of the apartment, just completely feeling like there was no light in the world and overcome by that feeling. And then I had to pull myself together and kind of go back in the apartment.

And so I had a small taste of it. I guess, you know, you might call it baby blues, where as I think many mothers experience that for months, where you can't see the light in the world. And I think, again, we talk about it when it comes to older mothers, you know, mothers who maybe have a traditional route to motherhood. But we don't talk about it when it comes to teen mothers who, you know, they're more likely to experience the depression, the postpartum depression, all of those things that come with the hormones that are raging at that time. And we just don't support them in those - in that critical time.

GROSS: Do you think that's in part because of the social judgment - you shouldn't have gotten pregnant in the first place; of course you'd be depressed; of course things weren't going to be easy?

LEWIS: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we have this thing about, you made your bed, now lay in it. Right? And how damaging that is. You know, this is a time, as a new mom, so many of us can understand the fragility that you have as a new mother and the uncertainty and just the fact that the world feels upside down most days (laughter). You're in a fog, even without postpartum depression. Like, these are the times that we need to rally around mothers, no matter how old they are or, you know, how they brought their children into the world. And yet for young mothers, we rip the rug right out from under them. And we have to acknowledge the fact that that is damaging. And it causes so many issues, not just for the mom, but also for that child.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Nicole Lynn Lewis. Her new memoir is called "Pregnant Girl." We'll take a short break here, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAIA WILMER OCTET'S "MIGRATIONS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Nicole Lynn Lewis. Her new memoir, "Pregnant Girl," is about getting pregnant in high school, all the difficulties she faced as a single teenage mother and how she managed to put herself through college, then grad school. She's the founder and CEO of Generation Hope, which helps motivated teen parents and their children with financial resources and mentoring to help the parents thrive in college and their children thrive in kindergarten.

When you were applying to college, knowing that you were pregnant, you had to figure out - what are you going to say in your college application essay? Are you going to address the fact that you're pregnant? So how did you deal with that?

LEWIS: It was extremely intimidating (laughter). I talk about, you know, just looking at the cursor on the document on the computer blinking for several minutes, for a while, just trying to think, how am I going to communicate to this, you know, advise - acceptance committee or, you know, whatever that group of folks were called that I am worthy of, you know, their acceptance into this college that I had already been accepted to but now was just saying, hey; I'd like to, you know, reenroll; I'd like to accept my acceptance?

And it was scary. It was scary to think about how to communicate that worthiness and knowing that the past year had been just complete chaos, you know, with two pregnancies, a drug-dealing boyfriend, homelessness - these are not things that you often tell a review committee when it comes time to applying to school. You know, you want to brag about your, you know, internship at this amazing company or your archaeological dig somewhere or your gap year. You know, my gap year was a very different gap year than I think most of the students had that were applying to to William & Mary.

And so I had to find a way to to push through that kind of intimidation and to say, you know what? I'm going to talk about the fact that I am highly motivated because of this baby that - you know, that I have to care for to get my degree, more motivated than I would have been if I was going to that school and didn't have a child to take care of.

GROSS: What were some of the ways in which you felt that the college wasn't equipped for a young mother like you?

LEWIS: You know, I mean, one very you know, basic thing is when I showed up to orientation, they didn't know where to put me. They put me in a group with transfer students. And because I was one of very few freshmen who was not living on campus - so I couldn't go with the normal kind of orientation with your RA leading you around campus and showing you where the dining halls are and all of that because I didn't have a dorm. I was commuting, and that just wasn't something that happened for a freshman at William & Mary. And they just didn't know what to do with me.

And I remember after a while, the student who was leading that orientation group basically kind of stopped including me in, you know, pointing things out and helping me to find things on campus because she just didn't know what to do with me. And I just had to figure things out for myself.

GROSS: If your daughter was sick, were your professors understanding of that? Like, if you had a test or you showed up late for class because of your daughter being sick, you needed to take her to the doctor - whatever - were you - what was the reaction you'd get? Did you even tell them that that was the problem?

LEWIS: (Laughter) Right, yes. I didn't - most of my professors I didn't tell. I did not tell most of my professors because I had some experiences with a few professors that I did tell that were really negative, you know, punitive at times. And, you know, things like, we're not going to make special accommodations for you. And at times, I felt like it almost became harder for me in those classes because I did disclose that I had a child. And then there were a couple professors who I did tell who were very supportive, who said, hey, this is amazing, you know, that you're keeping all of these balls in the air. And if I did have an issue with my daughter being sick, they were very understanding.

But I remember one time my daughter had walking pneumonia. She had had it for about three weeks, was very sick. And I told my professor that I couldn't make it in for - I think it was a test or an essay or something that was due that day. And she basically told me if I didn't bring her to class, I would fail the class. And it was winter. It was so cold outside. The parking lot was so far away from the building where the class was being held.

I remember walking with her - she was probably maybe 2 years old - carrying her in the cold, the bitter cold in the snow, trudging through campus in the snow to get her to this class, into this building and having her to have to sit on my lap the entire class. She was miserable. She couldn't breathe very well. And that was the only way I could pass that class. And I remember thinking, have I risked, you know, my daughter's health just to get to this class and make sure that I can pass? So, you know, you take a risk as a parenting student disclosing that you have a child to care for because it could go either way.

GROSS: Because there have been so many catastrophic instances lately where police do a traffic stop, and it turns into the person who they stop being shot and sometimes shot and killed, I want to ask you to tell a story that you tell in the book that's not related to your pregnancy or being a teenage mom. But I think it kind of speaks to the moment. And it's a story when you move from New England to the South. And you were driving with your white mother and your Black father, who was at the steering wheel. And you were stopped in a routine traffic stop. Tell us what happened and how you felt.

LEWIS: Yeah, we were actually on vacation. We were in Florida. We were visiting my dad's family. It was one of the few times that we went down to Daytona Beach and Orlando to visit his family. I was so excited. I was 12. I was so excited because we were going to go to Disney World. We had just left a family barbecue. The sun was setting, and everything was just perfect. Like, I was so excited and just feeling just the kind of excitement of doing something really special the next day.

And it suddenly changed. The mood in the car got very kind of somber. And my dad slowly pulled over to the side of the road. There were no words. You know, no one said anything. And I remember being confused about why we were pulling over. And I turned around and looked out the back window and saw a police officer was behind us. I saw the red and blue lights kind of swirling behind us. And this white police officer got out of the car, you know, had the sunglasses, a very stern face. And he peered into the car. He looked at the three of us and, in a voice that was very dismissive, told my dad that he needed to see his driver's license and registration.

And my father had always been a very strong presence in my life. He never seemed, like, deferential to anyone. And I remember in this moment, he was very deferential. He slowly took out, you know, his driver's license and registration, and he did not say a word. And I was so confused by who this person was. Like, who was this father? This is a father I had never seen before. Then I realized what was happening. My dad recognized that he was a Black man in the South with a white woman in the car and a biracial child in the backseat and that we were in danger.

And I remember feeling like the world just got much more treacherous for us as a family and for me as a young Black child, and Disney World felt just a little less magical. And the opportunities ahead of me felt like they were not as open to me as before. And that's something that I carry with me and think about in terms of, you know, how I show up in the world and how my children are received in the world.

GROSS: Did it affect your feelings about your father's power and strength and his ability to protect you from anything?

LEWIS: Absolutely. I mean, I felt like I didn't know what was going to happen in that moment, and I knew that my dad didn't have any power and influence on what happened in that moment. And that was completely opposite of the dad that I knew growing up. He was always in control. He was always - you know, always powerful. There was never a time that I felt like things wouldn't go the way that he wanted them to go. And in this moment, it was very clear that he did not have any agency and that everything was in the hands of that white officer.

GROSS: Let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Nicole Lynn Lewis. Her new memoir is called "Pregnant Girl." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTOPHER NORTON'S "SWING OUT SISTER")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Nicole Lynn Lewis. Her new memoir, "Pregnant Girl," is about getting pregnant in high school, all the difficulties she faced as a single teenage mother and how she managed to put herself through college, then grad school. She's the founder and CEO of Generation Hope, which helps motivated teen parents and their children with financial resources and mentoring to help the parents thrive in college and their children thrive in kindergarten.

And I should probably ask you here, is this mostly for the Washington, D.C. area, or are you working nationally with teenage parents?

LEWIS: We actually work nationally as well. And we've broadened our scope from including not only teen parents in college but also student parents of any age - you know, those who - those students who are caregivers, sometimes of the child, sometimes of their sibling, depending on, you know, kind of their journeys - and making sure that we're advocating for their needs to make sure that they complete college all across the country.

GROSS: Let's get back to your story. You graduated college with honors.

LEWIS: Yes.

GROSS: And with how much student debt?

LEWIS: My undergrad was about $35,000.

GROSS: By today's standards, that's not terrible, unfortunately.

LEWIS: Isn't that sad? Yeah, isn't that sad?

GROSS: And you write that Black students with children carry the most student debt.

LEWIS: Yes.

GROSS: Why is that?

LEWIS: Well, we know that, you know, there are so many things that contribute to that from the racial wealth gap that Black families have in terms of how do you afford college in the first place. You know, they're more likely to have to take out loans. But then if you're a parenting college student, you're not only taking out loans for tuition, but you're taking out loans for child care. You're taking out loans, potentially, for housing. That was certainly the case for me. You know, I was living off of student loans to make sure that I could not only go to school but that my daughter and I had food to eat, had a roof over our heads. Child care is incredibly expensive. I think we've seen all of the issues and the problems with our child care sector in this country. And so there aren't affordable child care solutions if you're a parenting college student.

And all of those costs - you know, they stack up. And so either you make it to the graduation stage and you have a tremendous amount of debt but you're at least able to have that credential to try to get into a family-sustaining job, but for many, many Black parents who are in college, you don't even make it to the graduation stage. You might have to stop out because of, you know, different circumstances. And then you're riddled with this student debt, and you don't have a credential to show for it.

GROSS: Well, you know, you really did an incredible job. You went to college. You went to grad school. And then, you know, you had various more corporate jobs and then founded Generation Hope. And also, you fell in love with a man who you describe as somebody who you never thought of as being your type. This is a man who ironed his clothes, cooked his food, had an immaculate home.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: You've been married for how many years?

LEWIS: We'll be married 14 years in October.

GROSS: And you've had three children together. So now you're a family of six - you, your husband and four children. How was being a mother different when you were married and stable, you had a home, you had a husband who really wanted to have children and who was going to really be committed to being a father?

LEWIS: Oh, my gosh, it was night and day. Just being able to rely on someone in the parenting journey has been - I mean, it's huge. And to be a team together, you know, it - I remember having our first child together. It was hard sometimes to let him (laughter) take care of me and baby when we came home from the hospital because my first experience, I was completely on my own.

And you know, really having a partner and someone who is present, who is involved, who wants to change diapers, who wants to talk about report cards, who wants to be there for the soccer games and the good stuff, but also who wants to navigate the more challenging things with you, it's completely different. And it has just been a wonderful experience to see him be a part of my oldest daughter's life and to also see him as a father to our children. It's been amazing.

GROSS: What were the things that you thought could have helped you the most when you were pregnant that you wanted to provide for other teenagers?

LEWIS: I think the things that I felt were really central and critical were emotional and financial support and, you know, looking at, what are the things that need to be in place to make that happen for young parents. Mentoring is a huge component of our program. We have a very robust mentoring program. And it's not about pairing our students with experts. It's about pairing them with cheerleaders, with people who say, you can do it. You know, if you have a teething baby at 2 a.m. and you have a midterm the next day, we're going to get through it. You know, you can do this.

It's about having a village. I remember being on campus at William & Mary and feeling like I was the only student who was going through what I was going through as a parent. You know, in our program, we have all these other young people who are parenting and working and going to school. They know what you're experiencing. They can be your village, which is so critical to make it through college.

It's also really important that you have the resources. So we provide tuition support to make sure that you can cover the costs to go to college. And then we also have an emergency fund. You know, I know in my situation, there were so many months where I wasn't sure if I could pay the rent or if I was going to be able to keep my daughter in the daycare center. And so making sure that we have a fund that, when those things come up, we can help to pay the rent. We can make sure that your child stays in daycare. If you have a domestic violence situation, we can get you into a safe and stable situation.

So those things are really critical, those emotional and financial supports. And when we think about it, those are the supports that every college student needs, whether they're parenting or not. You know, the difference is that many times parenting students don't have, you know, the network to be able to access those resources.

GROSS: You became pregnant the first time when you were 17 and in high school. A lot of teenage mothers become pregnant when they're 12, 13, 14. And you know, you work with a lot of teen parents. Do you work with teen parents who are considerably younger than you were when you were pregnant? And are the challenges that they face really, you know, different from the ones that you did?

LEWIS: Yeah, we work with young people who experience the pregnancy, you know, very early, some 11, 12. And one of the students that I have her story in the book, you know, that was her story of getting pregnant in middle school. And I think one of the things that we often see is that more than likely when you're young - when you're that young having - experiencing a pregnancy, you're usually in a relationship with someone - or I don't want to call it a relationship, whatever you want to say. You're usually sexually active with someone who is far older than you. Sometimes it could be a person, a partner in their 30s. And so, obviously, that's a situation where you have no control, right? You're in this really unhealthy, coercive relationship with this individual.

And so the trauma that comes from that is something that we definitely see in our students and help them try to work through. It's one of the reasons we have mental health supports on staff at our organization, not only because, you know, your - mental health is something that all college students need support in, but also we have students who have experienced these really traumatizing, difficult things that they're trying to process and work out as they're trying to parent and as they're trying to go to school. So it definitely, you know, creates layers of challenges that we have to help our students work through.

GROSS: Nicole Lynn Lewis, thank you so much for talking with us.

LEWIS: Thank you.

GROSS: Nicole Lynn Lewis is the author of the new memoir "Pregnant Girl" and the founder of Generation Hope.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the social life of trees with ecologist Suzanne Simard. Her groundbreaking research shows that in forests, trees communicate with each other in sophisticated ways - sharing nutrients, warning of danger and helping their own offspring get off to a good start. Her new book is called "Finding The Mother Tree." I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRUCE HORNSBY SONG, "BACKHAND")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRUCE HORNSBY SONG, "BACKHAND")

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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