Aug. 15, 2019
Nicole Lynn Lewis grew up middle-class, excelled academically in high school, and got accepted to several colleges. For her, college was always in the cards. Then, during her senior year, she became pregnant. This could have derailed Lewis’s college plans or at least changed the pathway of which type of institution she attended. After all, what type of support does a four-year residential college provide someone who arrives with a three month old?
Although approximately one in four undergraduates cares for a dependent, rarely do they attend the most selective institutions in the nation. This was not the case for Lewis. She took a year off following high school graduation, and started full-time in the fall at the College of William & Mary, one of the nation’s top public institutions, with her young daughter in toe. Her time in college as a caregiver student spurred her into starting her own nonprofit, Generation Hope, in Washington, DC focused on supporting young parents pursuing their college degrees.
While at William & Mary, Lewis often felt isolated from her peers, who had completely different lives than she did. She also found herself having to make difficult decisions such as deciding between buying textbooks or diapers and prioritizing groceries for her daughter. Lewis explained, “I had to be bull-headed and determined. As a parent and a college student, you need to have your unwavering attention on a college degree. I had to just keep putting one foot in front of the other.” Lewis graduated with high honors, crossing the stage in cap and gown with her young daughter.
After graduating, Lewis moved to DC and worked in the private and nonprofit sector for a few years, obtaining her master’s degree at George Mason University along the way. It was during this time that she became interested in working with teen parents to help them go to college. But there was a problem. No organization existed in the metro area that promoted and supported college attendance among teen parents, even though there were many teen and young adult parents looking for support on their college journeys. In 2010, Lewis launched Generation Hope with a class of seven Scholars, all young mothers of children who needed monetary resources and mentoring support to make it to the graduation stage. Today, Generation Hope has expanded to serve 100 Scholars who attend 19 different two and four-year colleges across the DC region.
Generation Hope recruits Scholars by working in the DC metro area community to provide several college-readiness workshops to "plant the college seed" for young parents who may not have believed that college could be a possibility for them. Those who attend are encouraged to be a Scholar. Generation Hope’s Scholar Program is open to students up to age 25, who are either current or former teen parents (anyone who had a child at age 19 or before), and they must have graduated from high school or earned their GED. During these workshops, the potential Scholars learn about the basics of college, financial aid, and Generation Hope programming. About 200 teen parents attend these workshops each year, and many go on to apply to be a Scholar. To further their reach and widen their applicant pool, Generation Hope also partners with financial aid offices at local colleges and organizations that work with teen parent populations.
Scholars receive up to $2,400 in tuition assistance for the academic year and access to emergency funds which are deeply important for parenting students who can often hit sudden financial hardship--from a medical bill to a car repair--that can cause them to drop out of college. They are also paired with a mentor who provides the aforementioned tuition assistance to their Scholar, a Hope Coach case manager to help the Scholar navigate the college-going process while caring for a child, trainings throughout the year, such as how to apply for financial aid and interview for a job, and family-friendly field trips to help build a community cohort.
Where there was a dearth of organizations to serve teen parents on their path to a college degree, Lewis created one. And she has now taken it a step further, growing the organization to include programming for the children of the Scholars so that Generation Hope embodies a two-generation approach that helps the whole family. To accomplish this, in Fall 2018, Generation Hope launched its Next Generation Academy, where Scholars get access to monthly home visits with healthy child development screenings, early literacy interventions, parent support groups, and funding to help them access high-quality childcare.
Community-based organizations like Generation Hope are invaluable to the students they serve. Since its founding, Generation Hope has celebrated 76 degrees earned through their program--supporting some Scholars for up to six years as they earn their associate degree and then their bachelor’s degree. The program is helping to change the trajectory for Scholars and their families: six months after graduating from college and the Generation Hope program, 92 percent of alumni are living above the poverty line, and 88 percent are employed full time and/or are enrolled in graduate school. Alumni are now working in fields that benefit the entire community as teachers, computer engineers, scientists, and more.
And the growing alumni network is forging a pathway for the countless student parents that will come after them: two alumni have become Generation Hope sponsors, three alumni have become Generation Hope staff members, six are serving on the alumni executive committee providing leadership among the alumni cohort and input on programming, and typically 55 to 75 percent of alumni volunteer or donate each year. This helps to ensure that current and future Scholars have the resources, and support to succeed, securing a future generation of hope for parenting students and their children.