Black History Month speaker talks reality of student parenting

Nicole+Lynn+Lewis+appearing+virtually+to+give+a+speech+on+Feb.+21.22.

Collegian | Mykyta Botkins

Nicole Lynn Lewis appears virtually as a keynote speaker for Black History Month at Colorado State University Feb. 21. Lewis is an author, activist and CEO of the nonprofit Generation Hope. Generation Hope is an organization that strives to motivate and mentor teen parents and their children.

Katrina Leibee, Editor in Chief

As Black History Month comes to an end, Colorado State University is still packing its schedule with events and keynote speakers.

Monday, Feb. 21, campus community members had the privilege of hearing from keynote speaker Nicole Lynn Lewis, an author and the founder of the nonprofit organization Generation Hope.

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The Black/African American Cultural Center and the Adult Learner and Veteran Services collaborated to put on this event, and they knew they wanted to choose Lewis because of her experience in student parenting. Lewis was a parent when she was in college, which about one in five undergraduates are, earning her degree at the College of William & Mary.

“What we loved about Nicole (Lewis) is she could really help speak to intersecting identities,” said Lisa Chandler, assistant director of Adult Learner and Veteran Services. “We know that most of our students are coming to us with a variety of identities at the same time, and … those sometimes can be challenges, but really what are those assets that they bring to campus?”

Lewis’ experience as a Black female student parent allowed her to speak on having intersecting identities, the challenges and what she gained from that experience.

Lewis began her talk by asking the audience to close their eyes and imagine that a person they love was made to feel unwanted, then moved on to saying that is often how colleges and universities make student parents feel. 

“They are told to leave this part of themselves … at the door,” Lewis said. 

Lewis talked about how colleges and universities often do not provide enough support for teen parents, and in Chandler’s introduction of Lewis, she gave the statistic that “less than 2% of teen mothers will earn their degree before age 30.”

Much of Lewis’ speech was dedicated to why these statistics are what they are, as well as to highlighting key excerpts from her book, “Pregnant Girl: A Story of Teen Motherhood, College and Creating a Better Future for Young Families,” which tells the story of her teen pregnancy and what it was like to be a student parent in college, as well as dives into how racism and classism affect teen pregnancy. 

Lewis spoke about how in high school she had dreams of her life and career that faded away as quickly as two pink lines faded onto a white stick. All of her achievements, grades and awards seemed to become background noise to the big picture of what her life was about to become. 

“The moment I discovered I was pregnant, none of those accomplishments mattered,” Lewis said. “When those two pink lines showed up, I felt undeserving of my college acceptance letter.”

Lewis made it through college as a student parent but left feeling unsatisfied with how rare and special it is for a student parent to graduate. She felt unsettled by the lack of resources campuses often provide for student parents, the lack of recognition and the subtle ways student parents are constantly asked, “Why are you here?” 

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This not only inspired her book but also motivated her to create Generation Hope, a nonprofit dedicated to assisting student parents as well as changing the systemic problems that create these student parent statistics to begin with. 

According to its website, the nonprofit “advocates nationally for the unique needs of student parents and their families, and partners with colleges and universities to provide technical assistance in order to advance student parent success in higher education.”

Though people told her that higher education is an impossible system in which to make change, she said, “I’ve never seen a system that needs to change that’s easy to change.”

Lewis discussed the importance of colleges and universities being accommodating to student parents and recognizing their needs and challenges. “(Teen parents) have 50% less time to dedicate to their coursework than their peers,” Lewis said.

Lewis gave four key items that higher education institutions need to be doing for teen parents. These included collecting and tracking the parenting status of students, applying a lens of parenting to diversity, equity and inclusion work, creating family-friendly policies and prioritizing relationships and connections with student parents. 

She stressed that the issue of student parenting in itself is a race issue, noting that about half of Black female undergraduates are parenting.

“Student parent work is racial justice work,” Lewis said. 

Reach Katrina Leibee at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @katrinaleibee.