Nicole Lynn Lewis, MPP ’06, knows what it feels like to juggle life as a teen parent and college student.
Even more than help with tuition, as an undergrad, she needed someone to lift her spirits when she had a midterm to take after staying up all night with a teething baby.
So she created Generation Hope five years ago to help other teen parents working toward college degrees. The nonprofit gives the parents money to go to college, but more important, it pairs them with a mentor to guide them through tough times.
“It’s so easy to get derailed,” says Lewis, who was named a 2014 CNN Hero. “But we know when these students graduate what that means for their community and for their children.”
Generation Hope currently supports 65 teen mothers and fathers in college. This year, five young mothers earned their undergraduate degrees with help from Generation Hope; two received associate of arts degrees from Northern Virginia Community College and plan to attend Mason in the fall. One success story is Angeline Palmer, who graduated from Mason in May 2015 with a degree in chemistry and a job teaching high school chemistry.
Lewis grew up in a family where a college education and top grades were part of the plan. But when she became pregnant in high school, that all changed.
“People told me, ‘You’re not going to go to college now. Your life is over.’”
She refused to accept that verdict.
“I had no idea where my tuition was going to come from,” Lewis says. “It was very much a leap of faith.”
She recalls her first day at the College of William & Mary.
“I looked at my feet and thought ‘These feet don’t belong on this campus.’ I was a young mother, I was poor, and I had an infant daughter at home.”
After graduation, she worked in nonprofits while earning a master’s degree in public policy from Mason. Married, and with another daughter added to her family, Lewis was discussing with her husband how to pay the bills now that her job contract had expired.
“I prayed to God that night and I woke up the next morning and wrote the business plan for Generation Hope,” Lewis said. “I knew in that moment it was a calling.
“I didn’t have a Rolodex or a big funder. I had a passion, I had a vision, and I had a strategy.”