Better days ahead for a teenage mother
She had a baby at 14. Now in college, she works nonstop to beat the odds.
Just before dawn, single mother Rasheedah Phillips and her little girl struggle with fatigue in their North Broad Street apartment as they prepare for the day ahead.
"You want to take this to school? " Phillips asks, picking up Iyonna's baby doll.
"No," the child responds softly, clutching an iced Pop Tart in one hand as she wipes sleep from her eyes with the other.
"Neither of us is morning people," Phillips said, smiling. "I'm faking it right now. "
Nonetheless, both don backpacks, and off to school they go - mother, 19, and daughter, 4.
The statistics on teen pregnancy are stark: More than two-thirds of girls who become pregnant before age 18 drop out of high school. Fifty-nine percent never get a diploma, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. Though teen pregnancy has been dropping nationwide, it continues to haunt thousands of girls every year.
Phillips, who became pregnant at 14, learned of the odds after her daughter was born.
Then she set out to beat them.
Now a sophomore criminal-justice major at Temple University, Phillips juggles an exhausting schedule as she strives to graduate in three years and go to law school. She maintains a 3.5 grade-point average.
She's the first to admit that it's not easy. Temple housing officials say she is the only undergraduate student living in campus housing with a child - and it's certainly not the route she would have chosen if she had her teenage years to live again.
But by achieving her dreams - to graduate from college and become a successful lawyer so that she can give herself, and Iyonna, a good future - she hopes to become an example for young girls, those with children and without.
"Though I continue to persevere despite overwhelming obligations and commitments that I am faced with, I would like others to view my experiences as an example of the road better not taken, while at the same time, viewing my achievements as an example of beating the odds," said Phillips, a graduate of Lincoln High School in Northeast Philadelphia.
Before she became pregnant, she was an A student who loved to write. Her goals were set: to be the first person in her family to graduate from college. Certainly, to avoid following in the footsteps of her mother, who similarly became pregnant with her at 14.
But when she was 14, history repeated itself for Phillips. The pregnancy cost her six months of the ninth grade, followed by depression so severe that she was briefly hospitalized. Her A's quickly dissolved into grades of C, D, even F.
Phillips said she never considered abortion or adoption. Iyonna's father did not remain a part of Phillips' life.
Stigmatized, she felt everyone believed she was destined to drop out of high school.
"I said, 'I'm going to prove people wrong,' " she said.
By her junior year she began to get A's again, and she graduated from Lincoln with several awards, and $9,000 in scholarships, for outstanding achievements.
Among her awards was a scholarship from Zeta Phi Beta sorority. Brigitte Johnson, a sorority member and an academic adviser at Temple, was involved in Phillips' selection.
"This was a young lady that didn't give up at all. She knew she had it in in her," said Johnson, also a Temple graduate.
Looking back, Phillips said: "It was tough. . . . I'm still raising myself, and I'm raising a child. But at the end of the day, it's very satisfying to watch her grow. She has made me who I am as much as I have her. "
About 7:40 a.m., Phillips and her daughter entered the Children's Village center at Eighth and Cherry Streets, two subway and train rides away. "See you later," Phillips said, kissing her daughter. "See you later," Iyonna replied.
The train rides alone cost Phillips $15 a week in SEPTA tokens.
To cover the $170-a-week day-care cost, Phillips receives aid from North Philadelphia-based Family Care Solutions, which administers a child-care funding program for about 100 area college students with young children. Sherrill Mosee, president of Family Care Solutions, said the funding program began in 1998 to break the stereotypes associated with teen pregnancy. The group uses federal money with foundation and corporate donations to pay for the child care.
"A lot of times when young women get pregnant, they feel they have to go to work and that they don't have money to pay for college, day care and household expenses," Mosee said. "We're trying to encourage them that they can go forward and make a better way for themselves. "
Money has always been tight. Since Iyonna was born, Phillips has worked various jobs to support her, even while living with her own mother. Her resume lists three stints at McDonald's, and jobs at Burger King; Dunkin' Donuts; a diner; a nursing home; a Target, and a video store. She's been a student-center building supervisor, a phone operator and a market researcher.
Three jobs last summer helped Phillips pay for classes not fully covered by scholarships and loans. Her mother and a close friend, Greg Hayes, 21, helped take care of Iyonna while she worked or was in class. This semester, she works 12 to 15 hours a week for Temple's graduate housing office.
While loans and scholarships cover college expenses and housing, she earns only $80 to pay other living costs.
Phillips and her daughter live in a small, sparsely furnished one-bedroom apartment; Phillips gives the bedroom to Iyonna, and she sleeps on a futon in the living room/kitchen. She's often up into the early morning hours doing three to four hours of homework a night.
It was Phillips' next-to-the-last class on Monday - philosophy, one of her favorites. Her teacher held the text: "What Does It All Mean? " The discussion turned to "egocentric predicament," which the instructor explained is what happens when "you can't get out of the cage of your own mind. "
Phillips sat in the front row, dead center, her favorite place: "I like to be engaged, active. I like teachers to notice me. "
In her creative-writing class, she was the first to volunteer to have her paper openly critiqued by her classmates.
"She was the maverick," said Alexander Betton, the adjunct professor teaching the course.
She has six classes - "Research and Analysis," "Morality and the Law," "The Nature of Crime" and "Africa in the 20th Century," in addition to philosophy and creative writing.
It's a heavy load.
"Rasheedah is exceptional. Very few young women can go to school and handle the task of raising a child, maintaining a home, meeting the demands of life, still as a teenager," said Stephanie Hardy, her criminal-justice adviser at Temple. "Her progression is really good. "
Phillips took creative writing in hopes that it would stir her drive to write, which faded after she got pregnant.
"I lost my imagination or something," she said.
She also makes time for college clubs and activities, including the Ladies of Essence, a sisterhood of minority women on campus.
For a forthcoming meeting on African American hairstyles, Phillips wrote in a flyer: "The Straight and Nappy of it all! The Journey of Women's Hairitages. "
Her friends and fellow group members admire her.
Cindy Huggins, 19, a sophomore broadcasting major who also was a classmate of Phillips' at Lincoln High, recalled how Phillips inspired her to be a better student in high school.
"At first I didn't know she had a child. I was shocked, because she got straight A's," Huggins said.
Even Phillips' mother looks up to her.
"I always told Rasheedah I envy her," said Bernadette Richardson, 34, who counsels juvenile delinquents. "I really wish I could have done what she's doing now, to have given her a better start in life. "
Phillips isn't sure she will marry or have more children. Some day, she hopes to open a home for teen mothers where they can get support to continue their education. As a lawyer, she wants to strive for justice for different ethnic groups and poor people. But for now, she's focused on Iyonna.
"I want to be someone my daughter can look up to. I know it's hard for her to have a mother who is a teenager in college. She's not always home to eat dinner at a certain time, or in bed by 8. Her schedule varies as much as mine does because she's always with me. But I do my best to push and make it up to her so that she will have a very secure future. "
Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or email@example.com.