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Helping teen moms succeed in college

By Erika Clarke, CNN
June 12, 2014 -- Updated 2139 GMT (0539 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Nicole Lynn Lewis faced rejection and isolation as a teen mom with college dreams
  • Now she helps other teenage parents beat the odds like she did and get their degrees
  • Her nonprofit provides tuition assistance, mentoring and life skills training
  • Do you know a hero? Nominations are open for 2014 CNN Heroes

Washington (CNN) -- If you met Nicole Lynn Lewis when she was in high school, you never would have thought "statistic."

Lewis was raised by college-educated parents. She was an honor student and the president of several clubs. She sang in a gospel choir. And her sister was a graduate student at Yale.

But Lewis' life was far from perfect.

"I grew up in an emotionally turbulent household," she said. "What was going on at home made me feel really uneasy and really insecure about my life. So I was looking for that security and stability in a relationship."

And then, at 18, she became pregnant with her daughter.

"When people found out I was pregnant, I was treated completely differently," Lewis said. "People stopped talking to me. I lost all of my friends. It didn't matter that I was an honor roll student, people pretty much wrote me off."

Lewis' mother even had doubts.

"I said, 'No matter what, in one year, I'm going to go to college.' And she looked at me and said, 'I don't think you're going to be able to do this,' " Lewis recalled.

Nicole Lynn Lewis finished college, earned a master\'s and worked while raising a baby.
Nicole Lynn Lewis finished college, earned a master's and worked while raising a baby.

Lewis went on to graduate with honors, earn a master's degree and do consulting work for nonprofits, all while raising her daughter. But she never forgot the uncertainty and isolation she felt in college, despite having great friends.

So in 2010, Lewis made it her mission to help other teenage parents become college graduates. Her Washington-based nonprofit, Generation Hope, provides tuition assistance, mentoring and life skills training to dozens of teen mothers attending area colleges.

"It's all about supporting our scholars in the ways that they need to be in order to succeed," said Lewis, now 34.

Fighting the stigma

For Lewis, it's about helping teen parents beat the odds.

Less than 2% of teen mothers finish college by 30, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

"It's easy to say that teens shouldn't get pregnant. But it's important to understand that a lot of the young people we work with have come from some very difficult living situations. They have absentee parents, are in abusive relationships. There are so many reasons," Lewis said. "We're not just dealing with sex-crazed teenagers here."

Do you know a hero? Nominations are open for 2014 CNN Heroes

Our scholars are some of the most ambitious, determined students you will meet. They completely fly in the face of the stereotypical teen mother.
Nicole Lynn Lewis

It's also about helping to break the cycle of poverty that runs rampant in the community. Many of the students in Lewis' program are the first in their families to go to college. By empowering the mothers, Lewis says, they become role models for their children.

"Our scholars are some of the most ambitious, determined students you will meet. They completely fly in the face of the stereotypical teen mother," Lewis said. "I think that speaks to the tremendous potential that young parents have if we believe in them."

From statistic to 'Scholar'

Students apply to be "Generation Hope Scholars." Once accepted, they are paired with a mentor who provides advice, emotional guidance and up to $2,400 in financial assistance each year.

"It's someone who genuinely cares about you and your success, and that's what makes the difference," Lewis said. "We're a family, we really are."

It's that kind of commitment and sense of family Angeline Palmer found when she joined Generation Hope.

"We can talk to another scholar or a mentor or Nicole, who have gone through exactly what I've gone through and can directly relate," said Palmer, 23.

The single mother of two is studying chemistry at George Mason University. She plans to pursue a master's or doctoral degree in chemical education.

"Generation Hope has really helped me believe in myself," she said. "They prepare us to have the skills for the future, and we can pass those skills onto our kids."

Lewis and her group have also reached hundreds of high school students through college-readiness workshops, helping them realize that furthering their education is a viable option.

This year, Generation Hope plans on accepting teen fathers into the program.

"I'm motivated by the potential out there that's being untapped. The future doctors, lawyers, teachers who are just in need of someone who says, 'You can do it,' " Lewis said. "I want to be able to help each and every one of them achieve their own success."

Want to get involved? Check out the Generation Hope website at www.supportgenerationhope.org and see how to help.

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