“Rhonda, don’t settle for mediocrity.” Grandma Doris said this one Sunday night riding home from church in Chicago, having a conversation about life, education and womanhood. At 14, all I was interested in was hanging out with my friends, talking on the phone with boys and having fun.
I wondered what mediocrity really meant. I know now she was saying you should want more than just anything that is handed to you. You should strive to be your best self.
At 16, I was a teen mom. Unsure of the future for me and my daughter, I dropped out of high school to care for her. I became pregnant with my second daughter so by the time I was 20 years old. I was single and between public assistance and part-time work in a gas station, animal hospital and call center, I supported my kids.
This was not the life I thought I would have. And certainly it was not what my grandmother lectured me that day in the car.
Studies from the Centers for Disease Control show that between 1980 to 2000, unmarried teen pregnancies in this country accounted for a median of 44.6 per 1,000 live births. In the African American community, the number was a staggering 96 per 1,000 live births for young women between 15 and 19 years old. Luckily, the rates have been dropping for teen mothers. In 2015, the Centers for Disease Control reported that the total birth rate for young women ages 15-19 was 22.3 per 1,000. It was an 8 percent drop from 2014. For African American teens, the birth rate was reported at 31.8 per 1,000. That compares to White teens with a rate of 16 births per 1,000. For Hispanic teens, the rate is double that at 34.9 per 1,000.
I earned my graduate equivalency degree—GED—when I was 26 years old. After a few years, I enrolled in my first college course at Northeastern Illinois University and decided I wanted a degree. I finished my undergraduate studies in 2006 and moved into a Master’s program. My daughters were 24 and 21 years old. I worked full time, went to school full time and was a mom full time. In 2010, I was enrolled in a doctoral program, earning my PhD in education in Organizational Leadership.
Many unmarried teen pregnancies are attributed to low social and economic opportunities in minority communities. More recent figures show that teen pregnancy rates have declined in the U.S., but this country is still one of the highest in the world.
Many tout the rhetoric of “the American Dream,” saying that hard work does pay off. But having someone to guide you to the next level, holding a door open or even just making a phone call to get you a job, could lead to someone emerging from poverty. It could lead to becoming a leader, contributor to society, as well as increasing personal confidence and encouraging higher education.
International Day of The Girl—a global effort sponsored by the United Nations to enhance the power in girls and underscore the need for mentorship, encouragement and equity for girls and young women—is today. I believe in it now more than ever.
My first mentoring experience was with my grandmother. She helped me to find jobs to take care of my girls, encouraged me to go back to school and gave wise counsel about life. I was lucky enough to know that this is how I would succeed—as well as my girls. To pay it forward, I’ve coached and inspired five family members to attend college. One of my nieces has received her Master’s degree and is an educator. My oldest daughter graduated college, law school and passed the New York bar exam on her first try. After working as an assistant district attorney, she has moved on to work as an attorney for human resources in a large city. My youngest daughter is finishing her degree with the hopes of a career in law enforcement.
Mentoring programs such as The National Mentoring Partnership and The Girls Empowerment Network and so many others offer skills and opportunities to succeed personally, academically and professionally. Recently tech giants Google and Snapchat reached out with a contest to mentor teens in tech, called #myfutureme to jumpstart girls’ imagining their own futures in a new way.
For me, after having many minimum wage jobs, I looked for ways and opportunities to carve out a professional career. I knew that since I started late, I was going to have to go up the ladder one step at a time. A job as secretary led to one as administrative assistant. Another opportunity led to a job as a coordinator and then a manager. Now, as the Director of Administrative Services in the College of Nursing at Rush University Medical Center, I oversee the administrative team and academic affairs team and work with women and men who want to know what it takes to move forward in their career.
Grandma Doris is 87 and still gives sound advice and sings the best birthday song ever. I wrote my dedication page for my dissertation to her—because I did not settle.