NOEL KING, HOST:
More than 1 in 5 college students is raising kids or a kid while getting a degree. Writer Nicole Lewis knows what that's like. She was a teenage mom who raised her daughter while getting a bachelors. In a new memoir, she talks about that experience and her work helping other young parents try to finish school. Here's NPR's Elissa Nadworny.
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: In her senior year of high school, amid the celebrations of graduation and college acceptance letters, Nicole Lewis found out she was pregnant.
NICOLE LEWIS: When those two pink lines showed up on that pregnancy test, it was just like, it didn't matter how smart I was. It didn't matter that I had been accepted into all these colleges. People were just like, it's over for you, you know, and you're not going to go to college.
NADWORNY: It was certainly a more complicated path for Lewis. She deferred a year, left home, lived with an abusive boyfriend. But she was determined to go to college. A year later, in 1999, with baby Nerissa in tow, she arrived at William & Mary, a public liberal arts school in Williamsburg, Va.
LEWIS: This campus, like, represented hope. You know? and there was no plan B. Like, if it didn't work out and I didn't get my degree, we weren't going to make it.
NADWORNY: Under umbrellas with an on-and-off rain, Lewis leads me through the storied brick campus, which dates back to 1693.
LEWIS: So we're heading into Old Campus.
NADWORNY: We pass a statue of Thomas Jefferson, who went to college here in 1760.
LEWIS: I definitely remember being, like, how crazy is it that I'm going to the school that Thomas Jefferson went to? And all of the irony and, like, with my baby as a Black student, that wasn't lost on me (laughter).
NADWORNY: Lewis' new memoir, "Pregnant Girl," describes her years here, caught between the academic prestige and the chaos of motherhood.
LEWIS: I would always be walking down these brick paths with Nerissa. I was kind of known on campus as the girl with the baby.
NADWORNY: Did you feel like that, girl with the baby?
LEWIS: I did.
NADWORNY: Did you feel like defined you?
LEWIS: Definitely. I felt probably more like the girl with the baby than I did the college student.
NADWORNY: Most colleges, then and now, weren't designed for students with children, which meant Lewis often felt like the first and only, constantly advocating for herself for housing that would support her and her baby, for a parking spot as a sophomore, for professors who would understand that she had to miss a test because her daughter had pneumonia. And time, well, there just wasn't enough of it.
LEWIS: When I got out of class, I was getting her from daycare, I was getting food on the table, getting her bathed, reading her a book and then getting her in bed. And then I would study all night long.
NADWORNY: With a handful of supporters - a woman in financial aid, a caring professor - and a lot of what she calls luck, Nicole Lewis graduated. It wasn't until after she'd left college that she realized just how rare her story was. Just 2% of teen mothers graduate from college by age 30. And Lewis understood why. One memory especially haunts her. She was grocery shopping with Nerissa.
LEWIS: Getting to the cash register and my debit card is declined - and I remember pushing her into the parking lot in the grocery cart, and I had no way for us to have dinner that night. We're talking $20.
NADWORNY: She says there were many times that $20 could have made a big difference. Today, Lewis runs a nonprofit called Generation Hope, which helps teen parents complete college. One vital element of that support - students can apply for up to $1,000 in emergency grants.
LEWIS: That emergency fund would have meant everything to me when I was in college. Like, I was so close to the edge. If one thing didn't fall into place, I could have easily dropped out of school.
NADWORNY: And students, Lewis says, they need that money fast.
LEWIS: Sometimes I'll talk to colleges, and they'll say, oh, we have a six-week turnaround time. And I'm thinking, by the six weeks, you've lost that student. That student is out of that, you know, apartment. They're evicted; they're on the streets.
NADWORNY: Staying in college, graduating, it's not just about the parents. It's also about their children.
NERISSA ANDERSON: You know, I was there when my mom graduated college. Like, that's huge.
NADWORNY: Lewis' daughter, Nerissa Anderson, is now a senior in college.
ANDERSON: Those years living on campus, although I don't remember everything, shaped me for 20 years.
NADWORNY: As she nears graduation, she's spending a lot of time looking at a photo she has from 2003, her mom standing next to her in a cap and gown. Nerissa plans to recreate that photo, except this time she'll be wearing the cap and gown. Her mom will be the proud supporter.
Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Williamsburg, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.