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The Audacity of Triumph

Teenage Motherhood and Forging Ahead with Educational Legacy

by Dr. Judith Gil

Over the last thirty years, my life has been a series of life-transforming moments. Moments that will forever remain etched in my memory, a source of pride for me, my family, and my ancestors.

As a first-generation American of parents from the Dominican Republic (provincia Hermanas Mirabal, Ojo de Agua, Salcedo), the pressures to succeed and set an example were plenty. Being the firstborn child created additional expectations from my parents and the ones I placed on myself. The focus on finessing the Dominican Dream was primarily centered on educational attainment. While no clear road map was provided to me to facilitate and achieve this goal, it was my parents’ expectation of me.

Several identifiers come to mind when I’m asked to describe myself. The primary ones are as follows:

  • First-generation (daughter of Dominican immigrants)

  • Anchor child

  • Teenage mother

  • Ivy League graduate

  • Doctor (setting an educational legacy for future generations)

  • First in the immediate and extended family to earn a doctorate

While I carry each of these with me as a source of immense pride, I am keenly aware that society has placed a negative connotation on a few of them. The trajectory of my life story has been filled with a strong desire to demonstrate that one can persist, survive, and achieve high levels of success despite barriers and obstacles. Our unique stories confirm that, as a people, we are resilient, determined, and overflowing with grit!

As a young girl, I was always emotionally attuned to the experiences of my parents. My mother worked many jobs where conditions were not acceptable by any stretch of the imagination, and my father worked long hours as a bodega worker and, eventually, as an entrepreneur, owning his own bodega. As an adult, I now realize that they both were working from a place of survival, ensuring that their family was being provided for while simultaneously caring for extended family in the Dominican Republic. With so much on their plate, there was little room for emotional nurturance and availability. I can understand and accept that now, as a person who has engaged in therapy to address some of the struggles associated with being a daughter of immigrants. I have learned to forgive and appreciate my parents for their hard work and for laying the foundation for the next generation. By their example, I learned about hard work, pushing through comfort zones, overcoming serious barriers, and the beauty of family.

At sixteen, I earned the title of mother. At a time when most girls were planning their senior prom or beginning to consider the following steps after high school, I was navigating the sudden changes in my life and the awareness of how this would impact my family. The embarrassment and shame this event would bring to my family was not something I was oblivious to. The early messages about the “good girl,” what that looks like, and how far away I had veered from that upbringing and mentality were the source of my stress as an adolescent for some time. I lived up to that image very well: quiet, demure, excellent student, “una muchacha buena.”

Clearly, having sex and becoming pregnant was far from that good girl image and was highly looked down upon by society, family, and friends. Culturally, having a child out of wedlock, much less becoming sexually active at a young age, is not easily overlooked. The expectation is that young girls remain in the home until they meet a suitable partner, withhold sex, and then get married and have children. It was difficult balancing the cultural expectations placed on me and wanting to experience the freedom to have fun and enjoy my adolescent years. The values around sex and marriage are strong, and even today, as an accomplished and highly successful woman, the pressure to “encontrar un hombre y casarte, porque ya está bueno y la escuela se terminó” remains constant.

Considering how common the lack of conversation regarding sexuality and safe sex practices is between immigrant parents and their daughters, it is no surprise that I relied heavily on friends for any knowledge of sex. As a result of this misinformation and the developmental stage I was in, it is no surprise that this came to be. While I can rationalize the fear of parents talking about sex with their children due to the fear that this will permit them to engage in sex at an early age, it comes with life-altering consequences.

While becoming a teenage mother shifted my priorities, it also became why I continued employing those “work hard” ethics instilled in me early on. I was always educationally inclined, and continued learning remained my focus. Consequentially, I became determined to be more than a negative statistic. Nationally, there were 960,000 teenage pregnancies in 1992 (Henshaw 1997, 115-122), the same year I gave birth to my son. My story thus lies somewhere within that number. My curiosity about the lived experiences of teenage mothers and the educational attainment of this particular group became the focus of my research interests years later.

In the years following my new role, I focused all of my attention on my son, nurturing and pouring into him while continuing to navigate the shift in my family dynamics. It took some time for my parents to adjust to parenting a child with a child and my three siblings. Amid the adjustments, their firstborn daughter continued to break barriers, excel, and set an example for her siblings despite the stigma of becoming a teenage mother.

In 1997, I graduated from the City College of NY with a Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology. After several years of working in marginalized and underrepresented communities, I decided to further my education and earn the necessary state licensure to become a mental health therapist in New York City. I attained a Master of Social Work degree from Fordham University. For the next ten years, I provided mental health treatment from a place of compassion, care, and cultural relatability.

The most fulfilling aspect of this time in my career was serving as a positive mirror and role model for young people in communities so often overlooked. I took pride in offering the necessary representation and exemplifying possibilities for a future filled with opportunities. During that time, discussing the stigma and normalizing mental health became a major theme with the parents of the first-generation Latinx clients I was servicing. I was in a position to empower, educate, and shift the narrative around mental health. This was one of the highlights of my career up until then.

The statistics are dire if we consider the trajectories and life outcomes of young women who become teenage mothers. The thought of going to college can be nearly nonexistent due to the tremendous responsibilities that suddenly emerge for teenage parents. Attaining a college degree is difficult, much less attaining a graduate degree and, ultimately, a terminal degree.

In 2014, I once again immersed myself in academics. This time, I had the audacity to believe that this young, Brown teenage mother and daughter of immigrants would have the chance to pursue a doctoral degree from an Ivy League institution. After weeks of writing the perfect personal statement and overcoming my imposter syndrome and self-doubt, I mustered the courage and submitted the application to bring every snapshot of my life full circle. I was accepted into the University of Pennsylvania’s doctoral program in social work, and in the fall, I began the most rigorous experience of my education and career.

My research would undoubtedly focus on the educational attainment of teenage mothers in the form of college degrees. My son and I were always interested in the outcomes of our special population, and we wondered if others with similar experiences had been able to achieve academic success despite the struggles and barriers we faced. For three years, my life revolved around weekly drives to Philadelphia. I had a goal, and I was going to do what was necessary in order to achieve it. Navigating this responsibility came with a new set of feelings related to family.

There were times when I was unable to attend family events, being too tired from reading and writing to engage my family over the phone. This came with the same guilt I had felt years before. Being the first in anything means it has not been done before, and there is no blueprint. I was again setting the stage for the educational legacy I now take immense pride in establishing for my adult son, my three nieces, and all the generations that will come after me.

In the spring of 2018, I defended my dissertation “More Than a Statistic: Exploring the Promotive Factors That Facilitated Educational Attainment in the Form of College Degrees Among Former Teenage Mothers.” My son, family, and friends were in attendance and watched as I triumphed and became Dr. Gil. That day carries a plethora of meanings. I was the first family member ever to earn the title of doctor. I was once a teenage mother whose life trajectory and that of her son could have transpired differently had it not been for the support of family, community, intrinsic drive, motivation, and persistence to prove to the world that teenage mothers can be defined by much more than their early pregnancy. It was the day I realized that, while it did not make sense to me at sixteen, my teenage pregnancy would be the life event that would impact my decisions for the many years to come. Without teenage mother Judith, there is no Dr. Gil.

These days, I spend a great deal of time quietly reflecting on my life, my son, and the successes we have both been able to attain. We have shattered those negative societal expectations and have become a beautiful example for others. I think about my parents and imagine them leaving their homes as young adults to pursue opportunities in a foreign country, seeking a better life for themselves and the family they would eventually create. I think of how they overcame their own obstacles related to immigration, acculturation, and learning in a society that was not always welcoming of them. As their firstborn, I have lived up to and exceeded their expectations. They do not fully understand my academic trajectory, but they proudly say que su hija es una doctoral.

Despite the differences in culture, values, and beliefs, there is an element of ancestral strength and knowledge passed down through generations in the form of costumbres, specific phrases, food, music, and consejos. They keep me anchored, focused, humble, and motivated to continue to grow and add value to the lives I touch. When we speak of being our ancestors’ wildest dreams, I am the embodiment of that for my lineage.


Dr. Judith Gil’s early experiences as a teenage mother shaped the trajectory of her life. Her lived experiences have motivated her to improve the lives of others. She is a Jeannette Rankin Foundation board member, deputy director of mental health at the Children’s Aid, and adjunct assistant professor with various social work programs in NYC. Dr. Gil earned her doctorate in social work from the University of Pennsylvania and her master’s degree from Fordham University. She is a proud mother to her 30-year-old son, and her three young nieces inspire her to model academic excellence.

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