Authoring a New Narrative on the College Experience

Five Insights on How to Support Student Parents—From Former Student Parents
Mai P. Tran
Manager, Strategic Communications (Global)

Today’s college students are often up against big hurdles to their success—and not just those found in the storylines we see in pop culture, like landing the top internship or getting accepted into their choice college.

Two memoirs released in the last few years by former student parents paint a new narrative on the college experience. Stephanie Land (“Class”) and Nicole Lynn Lewis, (“Pregnant Girl”) recount their challenges, despair, joy and triumphs of their journey in candid and raw details. “Class” picks up where Stephanie’s first book, “Maid,” left off, as she decides to pursue her dream of being a writer by enrolling in college – a dream that often felt too far out of reach. In “Pregnant Girl,” Nicole wrestles with her isolating college journey as a teen mom.

Book chat - student parents

These bestsellers paint the reality that so many of today’s college students face: food and housing insecurity, access to reliable transportation and internet – all while trudging through a system that few in their family or communities have navigated before. That’s hard enough for any single student to persevere through, but nearly 4 million college students are not only doing this just for themselves, but also for their children.

While they make up one in five of all US college students – a share that is comparable or higher to other student populations that colleges focus their resources toward supporting – their stories are still largely absent from our public consciousness.

The veil is starting to lift, thanks to a growing group of advocates, researchers, journalists, policymakers, funders and many others who are committed to advancing changes, shifting the system, and changing the narrative on who belongs in college.

I didn’t ask for help because I thought people would become concerned with a capital C.
Stephanie Land, Author of "Class" and "Maid"

Five Insights on How to Support Student Parents—From Former Student Parents

graduating dad

Recently, Stephanie and Nicole shared the stage, at an event hosted by New America, presented in partnership with Imaginable Futures, where they discussed the importance of telling one’s authentic and true story. Their moving conversation was moderated by Amber Angel of ECMC Foundation, a former single mother student, who is dedicated to helping to shape the future of the student parent movement. Here are 5 insights that we heard from their conversation:

  1. Colleges that don’t know their student parents are failing to nurture valuable talent and expertise on their campuses. Higher education institutions have much to gain from recognizing and supporting student parents, who collectively earn higher GPAs than their non-parenting peers and have a deep understanding of the value of completing their degrees. But colleges often don’t know parents are among their student body, which creates an unwelcoming environment where student parents feel isolated and hesitant to seek out resources to help them complete their degree. Stephanie shared that in her classroom, she “fought against people knowing I was a parent.” She didn’t want to share who she really was, and she was worried that “people would think less of me or doubt my ability” if they knew she had a child. “I didn’t ask for help because I thought people would become concerned,” and she emphasized “with a capital C.” Nicole shared that “I was told to hide it, to be ashamed—and that I don’t belong here.” Moderator Amber Angel added that she remembers carrying a cooler around campus to pump in bathroom stalls between classes and feeling isolated. Later, she realized, “29% of my campus were parents — Why was I made to feel so alone?”
  2. Sugarcoated stories don’t change the status quo. When Nicole first began writing her book, she was already then an accomplished CEO, founder and mother. The world knew what she calls the “sugarcoated version” of her journey of being a former teen mom and student parent. Although it was difficult reliving what she calls her “darkest moments,” Nicole felt that “she needed to be authentic and transparent in order to connect with people, to motivate them, get them angry and to change them.” As Nicole said “this is a story that had been silenced for so long.” And Stephanie shared: “If more people talk about it, [being a student parent] won’t be shameful.”
  3. "Nothing about us, without us.” Amber shared that a common phrase in the student parent movement is “nothing about us, without us” – in other words, when crafting policy, institutional practices, or making any decision that impacts the lives of student parents, their lived expertise must inform potential solutions. Stephanie shared an example of how policy design fundamentally shaped her path to a degree and beyond: When her child turned 6, she realized the work requirement to be eligible for public assistance programs increased to 20 hours per week. “I was working 15 hours, but it was not enough…I realized how much that action from the government defined me, and it still does. My worth was not in myself as a person but how many hours I could work in a week.”
  4. Data and statistics—especially on race—matters. Throughout Pregnant Girl, Nicole weaves data and statistics about student parents, and shares how race impacts the experiences of so many student parents, who are predominantly women of color. Nicole shared: “Everything that I experienced in my uphill battle to a college degree was connected to race… it’s hard to talk about homelessness, poverty, maternity without talking about race.” While Stephanie noted her instinct to want to blend in and hide her parenting status, Nicole notes her experience, as a Black woman attending a predominantly white institution, was different: “I knew I wasn’t going to blend in.” To create “authentic solutions… we have to name race, address disparities—otherwise we are not going to move forward on the things we care about.”
  5. Visibility is not a zero-sum game. Nicole noted that shining a spotlight on the experiences of student mothers, as all of the panelists had been, should not take away from the distinct experiences of student fathers, who number 1 million undergraduate students. “It’s incredibly important to uplift fathers,” she said. When people think of teen parents, they usually think of teen moms, which she says “speaks to the invisibility of the student father population.”

29% of my campus were parents — Why was I made to feel so alone?
Amber Angel, ECMC Foundation

Stories that Connect Beyond Campus

The two women’s stories have continued to make waves after they published their memoirs. Stephanie’s first book inspired the Netflix hit series “Maid,” and was listed on Barack Obama’s summer reading list. The success of the movie and book helped her secure her second book,”Class,” chronicling her experience. Her story has also been covered by major news outlets including New York Times, Los Angeles Times, NPR, among many others. “Pregnant Girl” has been profiled on NPR’s Fresh Air and featured as part of Steph Curry’s Book Club, Nicole has been named a CNN Hero and 2023 Washingtonian of the Year,and her work at Generation Hope, an organization she founded, has been featured on Good Morning America and in The Washington Post and many others.

Their stories are resonating with audiences who are increasingly eager for solutions to larger, systemic issues – like child care, racial equity, and economic mobility.This sentiment underscores the throughline in both women’s student parent stories – that student parents have valuable insights and experiences to contribute to their campuses, something colleges should be eager to nurture.

As Nicole powerfully noted, “We need to look at the college degree as the vehicle for our brilliance, rather than the thing that makes us brilliant.”

We need to look at the college degree as the vehicle for our brilliance, rather than the thing that makes us brilliant.
Nicole Lynn Lewis, Generation Hope