Nicole Lynn Lewis’s book Pregnant Girl (Beacon Press, 2021) is a genre-bending exploration, part personal narrative, part documented analysis of institutionalized racism, and part public plea for change in higher education. Lewis recounts the despair, determination, and celebrations of her hard-fought journey to begin college and complete a degree at the College of William & Mary as a young single parent. Through the course of a personal story, she critiques higher education’s contributions to racism and economic disparity while also holding steadfast to an idealistic vision of college’s potential to provide social and economic mobility.
Lewis describes growing up in a biracial family of artists and academics with an older sister who attended college and embarked on a successful career. When young Lewis becomes pregnant as a high school senior, her parents feel despair and frustration; Lewis leaves home and begins a painful journey with her boyfriend, Rakheim, as they move from place to place, sleeping on floors, and eating Pop-Tarts for most meals. Rakheim sells drugs and leaves her alone most of the day to secure transportation and money for her doctor appointments. Eventually, Lewis has a miscarriage and becomes trapped in an abusive relationship, her boyfriend intent on another pregnancy. Despite attempts to secure birth control pills, Lewis indeed gets pregnant again and works to create a plan for herself and her child.
While navigating the turmoil of abusive relationships and financial insecurity in her year after high school, Lewis manages to apply and be admitted to the College of William & Mary, a prestigious primarily white college not designed for students with children. She struggles to find housing, stable childcare, and reliable transportation while spending every night studying. She builds relationships with professors and advisors and becomes a student leader while supporting and caring for her young daughter. After earning her bachelor’s degree and graduate degree, Lewis goes on to found Generation Hope, a non-profit organization in Washington DC that supports parents attending college.
Although the story she tells is personal, Lewis embeds her personal narrative in historical references and statistics that reveal the entrapments of systemic institutionalized racism in American healthcare and education. Lewis’s struggles come not from personal failures but from racist, inequitable systems that deny opportunities and support for people of color and especially teen mothers. Although the book is primarily personal narrative, it is also a documented explanation of the history of racial oppression. In the course of her story, Lewis reveals that “more than half of all Black girls experience sexual abuse by the age of 18,” that only 2 % of girls who get pregnant graduate from college before 30 years old, that in New York City “in 2017, young parents and their children will account for more than 70 percent of the city’s homeless youth,” that “parenting students have approximately 50% less available time for coursework than their non-parenting peers,”, and that “in 2000, less than 5 percent of the undergraduate student body was Black.” All of these statistics move Lewis’s story into a broader context where patterns reveal systemic inequities facing young people with children.
As a young, pregnant Black woman, Lewis recognizes, “Regardless of how smart I was or how hard I worked, supports that could really make a difference for me and my child would be guarded by unnecessary barriers, and a college degree would be an evasive ever-moving target, meant for someone else.” Her experience as a single mother at the College of William & Mary shows over and over that the college experience was designed with someone else in mind. For example, she struggles to find housing because none of the campus housing was designed for students with children. She hopes to send her child to the campus daycare center, but the center is full with children of faculty (and priced for faculty with stable incomes). There is no space on campus for her to pump breastmilk, so she uses a bathroom stall, and, perhaps most importantly, many of her professors are inflexible and discouraging once they learn about her child. This prestigious liberal arts college was not designed for her, and she encounters barrier after barrier. Although she overcomes each barrier with creative thinking, problem-solving, persistence, family support, and some luck, Lewis makes it abundantly clear that the barriers are inequitable, unnecessary, and insurmountable for many.
Although the history of higher education includes examples of innovative educational programs and visions that not only accommodate but celebrate the lives of students of varied ages and socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, Pregnant Girl suggests that many colleges with the greatest potential to contribute to social mobility and cultural exchange instead construct learning environments based on exclusion. Barriers for young students with children, for students responsible for caring for older relatives in immigrant families, for working adults with a disruption in their college journey, are due as much to a failure of imagination in higher education as they are to limited resources. When colleges and universities design new dormitories, new libraries and classroom buildings, new pedagogy workshops for faculty, and new policies for students, which students are imagined as occupants and learners and contributors? If the imagined student is narrowly defined, then the resulting buildings and workshops and policies are narrowly constructed and cannot accommodate change. The change comes, then, only through a collective reimagining of who our college students truly can be. This reimagining should be rooted in the recognition that making space in buildings, classrooms, and pedagogies for those who have been traditionally excluded from higher education benefits not only formerly excluded students, but also the college or university and all the realms of our human and intellectual lives that are enriched by unique insights and experiences.
Lewis overcomes many of her individual challenges only through a collaborative or communal effort to reimagine possibilities for her higher education experience. Throughout her story, Lewis shows that meaningful relationships between students and faculty and staff have the power to change both individual lives and educational systems more broadly. Teachers and professors of color, in particular, understand educational barriers first-hand and use that knowledge to help Lewis through her journey. The high school principal who makes sure that Lewis completes her studies in the midst of tremendous turmoil (and regularly pays for her prenatal vitamins) understands: “just by virtue of being a person of color in a leadership position, he was more patient, understanding, and concerned with my well-being that others might have been. … Black and Brown principals and educators were—and still are—few and far between, making it harder for girls of color, especially pregnant and parenting girls, to stay in school and succeed.” In this way, Lewis shows that hiring faculty and administrators of color allows for better understanding and a more supportive environment for all students. Some of Lewis’s college professors do not believe she can do exceptional academic work while raising a child, but others make it possible for Lewis to succeed and thrive by fostering genuine relationships built on communication and understanding. A Women’s Studies professor, Maureen Fitzgerald, allows Lewis to make up an exam when her daughter is ill and asks her questions about her well-being and her work in other classes; most importantly, she recognizes Lewis’s potential and spends many hours encouraging her and working one-on-one with her on her honor’s thesis, demonstrating the potential for transformational relationships throughout higher education.
Can higher education be reimagined as a place for young parents to fulfill their immense academic and human potential? Can all institutions of higher learning create caring networks of support, remove unnecessary barriers, and embrace a more expansive view of who a college student is or can be? Re-envisioning what a college student looks like leads to re-envisioning what a campus looks like and what teaching looks like. To support students like Nicole Lynn Lewis, colleges need to be physically and intellectually transformed with more flexible housing, reliable transportation, and more opportunities for developing meaningful relationships with faculty and advisors. Although Lewis’s book focuses on young women with children, this type of reimagining extends to recent immigrant students, many of whom have caretaking responsibilities for siblings or parents, to working students, older students, and myriad other students whose potential is limited only by our currently narrow vision of the college experience.
Danielle Hinrichs is Associate Professor of Academic Writing at Metropolitan State University, a public comprehensive university with a commitment to community engagement and anti-racism. Danielle teaches general education writing courses and has interests in community-engaged learning, Writing Across the Curriculum, and integrating information literacy and research writing pedagogies.