Nicole Lynn Lewis was a college-bound honor roll student in her senior year of high school when she found out she was pregnant.
“I had all these acceptance letters from college and a growing belly...and a lot of doubt,” she said.
She took a year off to have her daughter, and then enrolled the next fall at the College of William and Mary.
On her first day of college, she looked around at all the students being dropped off by their parents and felt profoundly out of place. She had an infant, few personal belongings, and a boyfriend who was dealing drugs.
“I had to step out on faith,” she said.
She managed to graduate with high honors in 2003. She walked across the stage to accept her diploma with her daughter holding on to her robe.
Lewis shared her story at a TEDx conference held in Ashburn on Saturday at the headquarters for Loudoun County Public Schools.
Lewis was one of more than a dozen speakers who shared stories meant to inspire . There was a teenage scientist who made a breakthrough in cancer diagnosis using Wikipedia, an adventure filmmaker who climbed Mount Everest while broadcasting his journey to classrooms around the world, and a Grammy award winning artist who turned a painful relationship with his father into poetry.
Lewis recalled how hard her college years were.
She remembers not having enough money for groceries and studying for midterms while trying to soothe a teething baby.
But after all the struggle, she was able to get a job with an insurance company earning a good salary. She also broke up with that boyfriend and met her future husband in college.
“My college degree had transformed my life,” she said.
The number one reason girls drop out of high school is because of pregnancy, and many social services focus on their immediate needs — shelter, formula, food — and getting them through high school.
But Lewis said that’s not enough to lift them from poverty.
So she started an organization in 2010 called Generation Hope to help teen moms and dads make their way through college.
The organization, which provides scholarships and mentors, is starting to see results, she said. One of the parents in her program is a student government president; another is earning straight-A’s. More than two-thirds of students involved have increased their grade-point averages.
“Don’t ever let anyone, including statistics, tell you it can’t be done, because it absolutely can,” she said.