Student parent work is racial justice work

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Forty percent of Black female undergraduates attending college are parents. This week’s guest is author of “Pregnant Girl,” Nicole Lynn Lewis, who had a newborn when she first enrolled at the College of William & Mary in the ‘90s. There, Nicole found a friend in her financial aid counselor, Tammy Currie. We reunited them after 20 years to discuss how that financial aid support helped Nicole feed her family and what colleges can do to support this invisible population of students.


This podcast is brought to you with the generous support from The Walton Family Foundation.

Aimée Eubanks Davis is the host. This series is produced by Priscilla Alabi and Kristen Lepore. Priscilla Alabi is the producer. Kristen Lepore is the supervising producer. Story editing is by Jackie Danziger. Story consulting by Sonya Ramsey. Sound design and mixing by Andrea Kristinsdóttir. Music by Hansdale Hsu. Additional music by Andrea Kristinsdóttir. Additional engineering from Ivan Kuraev. Executive producers are Stephanie Wittles Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer. Special Thanks to Liz Thompson, Meredith Moore, Acasia Wilson Feinberg and Maya Thompson.

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Aimée Eubanks Davis, Nicole Lynn Lewis, Tammy Curry

Aimée Eubanks Davis  01:22

This episode contains sensitive content, including references of domestic violence. Brown versus Board of Education promised Black students access to equal educational opportunities. But how accessible are they when you don’t have an advocate in your corner? I’m Aimee Eubanks Davis and this is AFTER 1954.

Aimée Eubanks Davis 

Let’s go back in time for a minute back to 1907, when a wealthy Quaker woman named Ana Jeans had an idea to create a racially integrated foundation that would support black schools throughout the South. So Ana Jeans donated $1 million to the cause and told her newly formed board to get to work. One of the first things that the Board did was to fund a Black traveling teacher named Virginia E. Randolph. This woman would change the way Black segregated schools operated, because she traveled between 20 of them in the south and created a new way of supporting her students. Her philosophy was all about self-help and community. Once the new board published the results of her work, everyone wanted a traveling teacher at their school. This is when the Jeans supervisors were created. They were an innovation in education. They grew to be a whole network of traveling educators throughout the rural south, 1000s of them. These were Black leaders in their community who promoted cultural capital. They were farmers, homemakers educators and fundraisers all in one. These Jeans supervisors trained other teachers, they raise money for school programs, and they meet with their students at home to teach disinfecting practices to prevent disease or farming to ensure good health. They were fairy godmothers, they cared about their students and they did everything they could given the limited resources they had. And so I’m telling you this story to make a point. A good education is so much more than just education. We need a whole support system outside of the classroom. Jeans supervisors understood this. But during integration, you guessed it, some of these Jeans supervisors went to White schools, and then by the late 1960s, their roles poof just like that disappeared as our public schools continue to integrate. Today in 2022, perhaps the Jeans are a model for a path forward. Everybody needs a Jean supervisor in their corner. We all need a fairy godmother. And that’s why today we’re talking with Nicole Lynn Lewis and one of her advocates at a make it or break it moment in Nicole’s academic journey. She meets her very own fairy godmother, and she wrote a book about it.

Nicole Lynn Lewis  04:15

My name is Nicole Lynn Lewis, and I’m the author of Pregnant Girl. I wanted to put Tammy in the book because without Tammy, I would not have been able to go to college or complete college. I mean, that’s just the reality of it. That was huge and it changed the trajectory of my life.

Aimée Eubanks Davis

Nicole was pregnant in high school, and a mom with a newborn by the time she was a freshman at college. This is when she met Tammy Curry, her financial aid officer who literally helped her put food on the table.

Nicole Lynn Lewis 

I was in this weird situation where I was still considered a dependent on my parents even though I had been living on my own for a while. And so I needed to have an advocate, I reached out to the financial aid office and I was on Tammy’s roster, I guess as one of her incoming freshmen. And she really just like walk me through the process of what it would take once the baby was born to qualify as an independent student, which was huge because it would allow me to unlock more financial aid. I remember being really pleasantly surprised that she was Black at a college like William and Mary, you don’t often see people who look like you in those positions. I felt like I could bring my whole self into that space with her. You know, she wanted to help and she jumped right into action to help me with my situation.

Tammy Curry  06:16

I’m Tammy Curry. And I was Nicole’s financial aid advisor at the College of William and Mary back in the late 90s, early 2000s. My boss and I are talking and she said, oh my god, I should have led with this tammy, do you remember a student named Nicole and she didn’t have your, if she knew your last name, it didn’t resonate with me because it wasn’t the Nicole library member. So I said, I don’t know. And she said, well, she wrote a book. And she mentions you in the book. And she doesn’t just mention you once. She mentions you several times. And I’m like, I can’t wait to get off this call to start Googling, right? Because I’m tickled about it. But then when she said that you had a daughter, I knew who she was talking about. So I was like her last name has changed. I know it’s not this. So I just need to look her up. And it was really, it just took me to another place because I’ve had other parents and students say you don’t know how much of a difference you made for me. But to put me in print was just dropped the mic moment for me in my world of just what I do. Yeah, I started talking to people about it. And I would have people say to me, you know, you introduced me to my husband, and we gave you credit on the program. Like we said, you know, thanks to Tammy Curry for introducing us. She was like, I thought we had done something we did. You’re still special. But I’m in a book now. So had you ever wondered what happened to me and my daughter after I graduated, I am positive that I wondered, but not with fear. You know, I saw you as someone who was going to get where she wanted to go. Your determination and all of our encounters was just so pragmatic, like very orderly, even how you came into the office, you always composed, you know, some students come in and they’re looking like, they just got out of bed. They weren’t sure if they want to comb their hair that day. But you always came in looking the part like, I came here to figure out what we’re gonna do for my financial aid. Let’s make this work.

Nicole Lynn Lewis  08:38

As a teenager, I was involved in so many things I had already been published. I had my first article published at 11 years old about being biracial having a white mom and a Black dad. I was president of the Gospel Choir, President of the French honor society and the future educators of America involved with performances at times for the school and different special initiatives, I often volunteered out in the community with different clubs. So I was always doing something. Boys were you know, kind of secondary to that, I was really focused on you know, my goals and going to college. That was always the logical step and the next step for me. But then that changed when I met my daughter’s father. I was in a situation where I had just broken up with a guy right before my prom and needed a date and he was going to a different school at the time. And I called him up to see if he would take me to my prom and that was the beginning of us dating for about two and a half years. And it was really fun to go to prom together. I almost felt like we were celebrities when we walked in because he just had dislike, following because he was such an amazing football player. And it felt nice to just be attached to that and attached to them. I think things started to go bad in our relationship pretty early. I think there was a short honeymoon phase, you know, at first, but that wore off pretty quickly. And I remember being in high school one day, and sitting in class, and I had not, maybe responded to his calls or his pages as quickly as he wanted me to. And he sent me a code, which was 187. And that’s a numeric code. So sometimes people will send 143 for I love you. 187 means I’m going to kill you. I remember being shocked to get that message and worried and scared, and confused. I’d never been in a relationship where someone had treated me that way. And that was the first time but it was not the last time it just kind of continued well into our relationship. And of course, got worse over time. It was very much almost like history repeating itself in a way. There was never a moment of feeling at ease in that relationship. And that’s how it was as a kid, I would sit outside of my parents door, I would hear them arguing. I would be wondering if everything was okay, if my mom was okay. I just remember never feeling like completely stable in our house. So it was very similar. I found out I was pregnant one day after school, I asked my boyfriend to come over and be there. When I took the test. I had gone to K-mart and, you know, picked it up and brought it home. I called my mom at work. She was a teacher, and so called her at school. And I just was sobbing on the phone and she said, are you pregnant? And I said yes. And then I could just hear her voice break. And she said we’ll talk about it when I get home. And I was upstairs in my room. When she came home that night. I had already been crying. I was really nervous. I remember her coming upstairs. And she looked just really gutted. I could tell she had been crying on our way home. And we sat on my bed and she just said you have no idea like how hard this is going to be. And I said I’m going to go to college. And it was almost like I was saying that more for her than anybody else. I didn’t want her to be disappointed. I didn’t really know if I could go to college. But I wanted to assure her that I was going to stay the course. We kind of just held each other we cried and then we tried to figure out how to move forward.

Nicole Lynn Lewis 

We’re back with Nicole Lynn Lewis. At this point in her story, she’s pregnant, and she knows it’s going to be really hard to finish high school. The truth is, the odds weren’t in her favor. Today. 60% of teen moms don’t graduate high school, less than 2% finished college by the age of 30. But Nicole, she was determined to finish high school, even though some of her teachers were not in her corner.

Nicole Lynn Lewis  16:00

When I got pregnant, I had some teachers in my school who were really judgmental, some of them would stop talking to me, stop saying hello to me in the hallways, I had some teachers who they were looking for an opportunity to sort of punish me in a way I think, for being pregnant. And that was really hard. It was totally opposite of what my whole K to 12 experience had been. I had always been this really strong student, teachers loved and were really supportive of and then suddenly my pregnancy, it changed all of that. I had a journalism teacher who started to grade me really harshly. You know, I wanted to be a journalist, I love journalism. And that teacher was really not happy with the fact that I was pregnant and wouldn’t look me in the eye when I tried to talk to her about my grades. And my grades slip from an A to D.

Nicole Lynn Lewis 

I knew it was going to be a problem when I brought the report card home. And it was and my dad went off and got really upset. He was yelling in my face and they took the car keys away. So I wasn’t able to use the car and told me I had to find my own way to the doctor. And it was during that fight that I decided I couldn’t be in that home anymore and I needed to leave. I didn’t really have a place to go. My boyfriend was living with his sister. Both of his parents were deceased. So sometimes we slept in the high school parking lot in his car. Sometimes we couch surfed you know, sleeping on the floor when your belly is growing and you’re uncomfortable. It was really hard. I didn’t have reliable transportation to school every day, which is the case for many young moms. And so I was suddenly at risk of not graduating from high school because I had so many absences. Mr. Morgan was a black man, a black principal, which was pretty rare. And it was up to Mr. Morgan to sign the waiver to say that I should be able to graduate from high school, which he did. It was really because of him that I was able to graduate on time.

Nicole Lynn Lewis  18:37

I gave birth to my daughter Marissa, just under a few months before I started as a freshman in college. When I started school, I was nursing, I was just trying to find a place to pump on campus. That was really tough. It’s hard to find a place to pump on campus now. But never mind. When I started school in 99. I remember going to the bathroom and finding a bathroom with a stall and a plug. Most college students don’t really know what the heck up pump sounds like. And so I was in the bathroom stall and I would often see people peeking through the cracks of the stall like what is happening in there. I was still living with my boyfriend at the time that I started as a freshman in college and I was driving 150 miles total each day to be able to take her to daycare and to get to campus and then to leave campus and pick her up from daycare and get home. So I was leaving in the morning when it was still dark outside and getting home at night when it was dark in the evening and trying to figure out dinner and all of that. You know I was with my daughter’s father physically living in the same place with him. But I was really a single mom, I didn’t have the support of, you know, someone waking up with me in the middle of the night for feedings or helping me by watching her. So I could just take a shower. And so I felt very much like, I was exhausted. The day that I realized I needed to leave him, it was actually at night, I was studying for one of my classes. And we got into an argument about paying the rent was kind of an argument we had all the time about using money that we needed for rent or bills, and him wanting to use it for something else. And I stood up and we were yelling in each other’s faces, and I turned to go up the stairs and get away from him. And he dragged me back into the dining room, he got on top of me, pin my arms down. And I remember looking in his eyes and not seeing him anymore. He took my hand. And he used it to slap me across the face twice. And my whole face was just like, ringing. And he got up and he spit on me. And then he left. And I just sat up in the apartment, and I just couldn’t believe like what had happened. And I locked the door, I didn’t want him to come back into the apartment, he came back, he was banging on the door. And he kicked the door in. He went upstairs, he got our daughter out of the crib while she was sleeping. And he took her into the night. And I remember sitting there wondering if I should call the police and not sure when they would come back. And I was just out of my mind worried. And I said a prayer. And I said if he brings her back safely, I’ll leave him. And he brought her back. And that was the night I knew I was done. I didn’t understand what had happened. Like I didn’t realize that I had been in a domestic violence situation like I didn’t even, I wasn’t even able to really name it at the time.

Nicole Lynn Lewis  22:51

And I knew the first person I needed to talk to was Tammy Curry because I knew that if anybody was gonna be able to shoot it to me straight and tell me what I could and could not qualify for it was going to be you. And so you were one of the first people that I talked to about, I want to leave my boyfriend, I don’t know how I’m going to pay for rent and food and all of those things. And so I remember going to you and saying here’s the situation. And we sat down I think in your office, and we looked at what I was currently receiving in terms of financial aid, and what I could possibly have access to. To be able to get more aid to move out on my own to be able to cover expenses, and I remember you saying we’re gonna figure this out, and we had to pull out the paperwork, get real creative, and it’s gonna be tight, you know, you can do it. So I ended up leaving him the summer of my freshman year in college. And it was probably the most difficult decision that I’ve ever made. I felt incredibly guilty about pulling her away from her father. But I also knew that it was going to be better in the long run for me to take her and raise her on my own.

Nicole Lynn Lewis  24:26

The day that I graduated, was surreal. It was amazing. It was a pinch yourself kind of moment, because it wasn’t just about me achieving this big, huge milestone. It was about everybody along the way who told me that that was never going to happen. It was the night that I would look at an ERISA and I would want If I was ever going to actually be able to do this, it was all of the sleeping in the car to being in the Motel Six and getting my acceptance letter and being pregnant. It was like all of those moments coming together. And it was a day that I envisioned, but now I was actually experiencing it. And that was overwhelming. It’s huge stadium with all these parents and supporters and family members. And then all of the graduates all of us sitting in front of the stage with our black caps and gowns. I remember looking up in the stands, trying to find my family, my parents, and trying to find Marissa. Because, you know, that’s what this was really all about was her, and I couldn’t find her I couldn’t find, you know, my parents after the ceremony and we threw our hats in the air. And then we all poured out into the parking lot to look for our families. And I remember she was wearing this beautiful blue and white checkered sun dress, and she had these big flowers that she was holding, and she was looking for me and I just remember finding her and scooping her up and crying into her, you know, just like, completely, completely overwhelmed. And as I pulled away from her, and I’m looking at her, and I’m thinking she’s gonna say like, oh, I’m so proud of you, mommy, her thing was are you done with classes now? That’s all she could say. Because, you know, she was like, I’m so over you telling me that you have to study or you have a paper to write or something like that. So she was just happy that this meant that mommy was done with classes, and I could be you know, all hers. Going forward. That was just an incredible moment.

Aimée Eubanks Davis  26:59

Today, Nicole’s daughter Marissa is 22 years old, and I’m happy to report she’s finishing up college herself this year. More from Nicole and Tammy after this break.

Aimée Eubanks Davis 

Nicole’s story is really incredible. Attending college with a newborn, having the courage to leave an abusive partner and actually graduating, crossing that finish line is a huge accomplishment. And so while Nicole’s story may sound unique, it’s actually not. There are so many Nicole’s so many invisible students like her on college campuses who need support who need a Tammy curry in their lives. Because the barriers to an equal education are still prevalent, especially for students of color. What can we do to fix this? Nicole and Tammy have some ideas.

Tammy Curry  30:02

In your perfect world, what does Black education look like to you?

Nicole Lynn Lewis 

I think too often, we don’t have champions for black children. Or we don’t have enough champions for black children in positions where they can do something to help them. And I think about you being in a position, I mean, your position at William and Mary was huge for me, because without the finances to be able to not just pay for tuition, but you helped me unlock resources to put food on the table for my child, put food on the table, for me to be able to pay for childcare. When we think about how few right champions we have in those positions, I think that when I think about black education, rich black education, that’s what it means is more of those people who can connect resources, remove barriers, and stand up for kids when they need somebody to stand up for them.

Tammy Curry 

In my perfect world, Black students would probably go to an HBCU equivalent, where people are proud to be Black, they’re proud to promote their Blackness and recognize, aside from being Black, your human being, you’re an American, you’re you’ve come here to get the same education everyone else wants to get in, usually as afforded to get without having to find that needle in a haystack to help you get it.

Nicole Lynn Lewis 

Just speaking about that, when we think about HBCU environments, William and Mary is the opposite. From an HBCU environment, what was that like for you being in your position in a not only a predominantly white institution? But when we think about William and Mary, early colonial College, yes, you used to be able to bring your slaves with you to campus, it was you know, they had a tobacco plantation that helped to bring in revenue. I mean, we’re talking about the early colleges that baked in the DNA for the higher ed system we know today, like what was that like for you?

Tammy Curry  32:25

One way I thought I dealt with it is that I refused to live in Williamsburg. So I had to live in Newport where there was more diversity, and more of a sense of comfort for me, my role, or my purpose was so rare, ready for the students who were coming in, that all I had to do is just sit in my position and just wait. I made it my duty, you know, without even having to overthink it, if a student came to me, and they naturally felt comfortable asking, you know, can we get financial aid or if the parents are reaching out, which oftentimes was the case, then I felt if I don’t do this, it won’t get done. And so when we would sit in groups, making decisions about financial aid awards, I was the only black person in the room. And because I was only Black person in the room, I always want to use the opportunity to educate people. So if it means I translate to you what this letter really means, because you may not be able to relate or understand, then that’s what I’m going to do, because it’s going to help this student get that financial aid that they are hoping to receive. And I saw myself as being different, but there was a very serious purpose. I took a special interest in wanting to be there for the students of color, because they didn’t always speak that same language. Yeah. And then there’s a pride element that oftentimes comes into play with parents in particular, who don’t want you to think they’re in need. Whereas we have other populations who will jump through hoops to say, we’re broke, knowing that they’re living in. Back then they were living in a $800,000 home. Yeah, and black folks, because of where we’ve come from. It’s like, I don’t want you to know that I’m struggling because I’m proud. And I want to maintain that level of pride and dignity that comes with, you know, being able to send my child to a marriage. But you need to know that there’s money here for your child, right. Just tell the truth. Nicole, do you think there is anything that schools could do to assist students with stories like your story?

Nicole Lynn Lewis  34:42

I think there’s a lot that institutions can do. And I think you know, when we think about higher ed and who it was designed for, we’re really talking about white men. And they’re not parenting they’re not students of color. They’re not low-income students. They’re not students who are working multiple jobs and going to school. They’re not commuting students; the list goes on and on. And yet we know that those are the students who are in the majority, right. And when we look at parenting students, you know, it’s nearly 5 million undergraduate students across the country, it’s about one in five undergrads across the country. And then when we look at it through the race equity lens, it’s almost half of all Black female undergraduate students across the country are parenting. So it’s a significant population. And so I think one thing that that is really important for higher ed is just to make sure that student parents are on your radar. You know, I talked to people who, you know, their professors, their administrators, at colleges and universities, and when I share those statistics, their jaws are on the floor, and it’s such an invisible population. And, you know, I felt invisible at William and Mary. But now in doing this work day in and day out, I realized that the majority of you know, the students are feeling that way. Today. There’s a lot of reasons for that. One is most colleges don’t track the parenting status of students. So they’re not collecting that data. And you know, what you don’t collect data on you don’t prioritize, you don’t invest in. So most schools are flying blind in terms of how many of our students are caregivers? And what are their experiences? What are their needs? And are they completing, right. And so I think that’s a big, you know, first step. You know, student parent work is racial justice work. And we say that all the time. And I think now more and more, you have institutions that are coming out with race equity statements, and in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and wanting to really address race equity. And I think there is an accountability factor at play here where we want more than statements, we want action, student parents are more likely to be students of color. So this is an opportunity with this population to put action behind your work. If you start to really say we’re going to prioritize this population and invest in them, and put some real programs and supports in place that is going to lend itself to advancing your race equity work on your campus. I started generation hope in 2010, to help other teen parents experience their own success through college completion. One of the things that was hard for me when I was working towards my college degree and even before I got to college was I didn’t see anyone in my community, in my school, who had gotten pregnant and who, who had gone on to college and finished college. That was uncharted territory. It was it was really difficult to envision that for myself, because I didn’t see other people doing it. Many of the girls in my situation disappeared, dropped out of school, they weren’t going off to college. And so I think it’s really impactful for our students to see someone who has achieved that. Not only go on to college, but also start an organization that makes it possible for many more young people to go on and to do the same thing. And to sit in a CEO seat.

Tammy Curry  38:34

It feels just like my child. You just really do magical things. It’s been it really touched my heart when I even saw my name in the ball. So I started crying. I was like, you’d be in trouble if the whole chapter was about. So it’s just wow. It’s really good. I’m really happy for you.

Aimée Eubanks Davis

Nicole and Tammy’s conversation reminds us of how important it is to tell our stories. give shout outs to the black administrators who quietly sit up for you along the way. speaking your truth might give someone else the courage to keep on going or to inspire someone else to lend a hand. It takes a village to ensure black students have the tools and a little bit of the magic to succeed. Speaking of magic next week, we’re talking to Jason Brooks, a longtime educator who knows the importance of helping black boys identify their superpowers. See then


AFTER 1954 is a production of Lemonada Media. This podcast is brought to you with generous support from the Walton Family Foundation. I’m your host Aimée Eubanks Davis. This episode was produced by Priscilla Ellaby And Kristen Lepore. Priscilla Alabi is our producer, Kristen Lepore is our supervising producer. Story editing by Jackie Danziger story consulting by Sonya Ramsay sound design and mixing by Andrea Kristinsdóttir music by Hansdale Hsu. Additional music by Andrea Kristinsdóttir. Additional engineering from Ivan Kuraev. Our executive producers are Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer. Special thanks to Liz Thompson, Meredith Moore, Acasia Wilson Feinberg and Maya Thompson. help others find our show by leaving us a rating and writing a review. Follow us at Lemonada media across all social platforms. To learn more about the 1954 project and its mission to fund black leaders in education visit 1954 You can also get more bonus content and behind the scenes material by subscribing to Lemonada premium. You can subscribe right now in the Apple podcast app by clicking on our podcast logo, and then the subscribe button. To find resources about the topics in this show. Go to the show notes on this episode. Thanks so much for listening

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