New book: To help student-parents thrive, focus on belonging, basic needs

A new memoir from Nicole Lynn Lewis, founder of a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that helps teen parents enroll and thrive in college, highlights opportunities for higher education to better support students who are raising children. Lewis recently spoke with NPR and The Chronicle of Higher Education about her book, Pregnant Girl: A Story of Teen Motherhood, College, and Creating a Better Future for Young Families, sharing insights from her own experience parenting while earning a degree.

Lewis had a three-month-old daughter when she enrolled at The College of William & Mary in 1999. Using Pell Grants and loans—and at times, facing basic needs insecurity—she put herself through college and graduate school, navigating environments not designed for student parents.

Lewis founded her nonprofit, called Generation Hope, in 2010. The organization focuses on “supporting the whole student,” Lewis says, adding that “sometimes that support is academic, sometimes it’s supporting their life needs.” Through Generation Hope, teenage mothers can access financial assistance, mentoring, encouragement, and emotional and mental health support.

Welcoming student parents, building trust

Asked how colleges can better nurture young parents, Lewis points out the disconnection that occurs when student parents don’t feel a sense of belonging on campus. “It all goes back to what we’ve been taught about…who’s deserving of being there” through media and other messages, Lewis says. She says it’s crucial “to challenge those messages about who belongs,” so that higher education can build structures that serve every student, not just the small population of students for whom higher education was originally designed.

Colleges and universities must ensure that student parents feel seen and valued. “For so long, this population has been invisible,” Lewis notes, calling colleges’ lack of data on student parents “the biggest, most glaring” gap in their support for that group. At the same time, students need to trust that disclosing their parenting status will be valued—not seen as a weakness.

“My first question to any institution is: Do you consider student parents an asset or a liability?,” Lewis says. And for institutions that want student parents to be active in their campus community, to contribute the leadership qualities that come with balancing competing responsibilities, “what are they doing to communicate that?”

Supporting the whole student

Lewis calls on colleges to not only create opportunities for student parents to connect with and support each other, but also to consider the experience for student parents across all dimensions of the institution—from the dining hall to the financial aid office.

Resources that help meet students’ basic needs are especially crucial. “We have to recognize the significant challenges happening with young parents—from housing insecurity to food insecurity to childhood trauma—that can make it difficult for them to see higher education as a viable option,” Lewis says.

Often, student parents are at risk for taking on overwhelming debt as they juggle tuition, child care, and other household responsibilities. Some eventually pair that debt with a college degree and attendant earnings, but others, including “many, many Black parents who are in college, you don’t even make it to the graduation stage,” notes Lewis. “You might have to stop out because of different circumstances. And then you’re riddled with this student debt, and you don’t have a credential to show for it.”

Support doesn’t have to be expensive

Lewis emphasizes that there are many low-cost ways that colleges and universities can improve support for student parents. For instance, Generation Hope is urging more colleges to implement priority class registration for students with kids, recognizing that they often are juggling course scheduling alongside work and household responsibilities. Scheduling conflicts can pose an especially steep hurdle as students near graduation and need to take specific courses to finish their degrees.

Another inexpensive improvement is ensuring that the photography used in college marketing materials shows parenting students. “It’s powerful to see that. Far too often, we don’t see that,” says Lewis. Some colleges, she adds, don’t even allow children on campus—a fundamental barrier for students with kids.

Ultimately, Lewis says, she hopes the book will prompt leaders across higher education to ask themselves if they are doing everything possible to make sure all students, including those with children, can succeed.

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