As Dr. Nila Ricks worked her way up from an associate degree to a Ph.D., she also pursued a career in social work. Managing both school, her young family and work was not always easy, she says, but she was committed and particularly passionate about improving the lives and opportunities of teen parents.
Her focus on young fathers and mothers comes in large part from her own life experiences. When she was just 15, Ricks discovered that she was pregnant. For many, this might have meant the end of high school and the end of any college aspirations.
Dr. Nila Ricks
Yet Ricks was determined to prove the system wrong. Though many of the adults in her life at the time tried to tell her that her dreams of college were over, she was determined to go ahead with them. Weeks after giving birth to her daughter, Ricks was back in high school. She ended up graduating on time and enrolled in a local community college the following fall.
“I was pregnant at the time when teen pregnancy rates were astronomical,” Ricks says. “But I just knew that I wanted more for myself, I wanted more for my daughter, and I wanted to overcome the label that was being imposed on me by others.”
Today, she is an assistant professor of social work at Texas Woman’s University, in Denton, Texas. When she was still in high school, Ricks recalls making a promise to herself, “I’m going to get a doctorate. I told myself that that’s the highest degree that they offer at a university, and I want to obtain that.”
She chose social work as a means of helping teen mothers achieve the best life possible for themselves.
“I know that my story is a rarity,” Ricks says. “So if I can prevent other young moms from going through this, then this experience for me would be worthwhile.”
In her department, Ricks is regarded as a role model for other junior faculty members to emulate, says Dr. Celia Lo, chair of TWU’s Department of Sociology and Social Work. Lo cites Ricks’ personal story and her collegial, open attitude as examples.
Texas is particularly fraught ground to lead the crusade against high teen pregnancy rates. The state leads the nation in terms of “repeat” teen pregnancies, and while the teen birth rate is dropping in Texas and nationally, the state is still home to communities where the teen birth rate remains alarmingly high.
Some of those communities are located in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area, where the average in some ZIP codes can be as high as 113 births for every 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19. The national average is 27 for every 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19, a 30-year low.
The social factors contributing to these statistics are complicated and not easy to untangle. One challenge is sex education, which Texas school districts are not required to teach. Those that do are required to promote abstinence over other methods of birth control.
In addition, some high-poverty communities are cut off from access to health care services, whether by a lack of insurance coverage or a dearth of health care providers. Texas is also one of two states that forbid the sale of contraceptives using state funds to minors without parental consent.
TWU is part of a community partnership that received a five-year, $4.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to address the teen birth rate in Dallas County communities where the teen birth rate is disproportionately high. Ricks is one of two professors leading TWU’s involvement in the program and the grant evaluation process.
Despite all the roadblocks, change is urgently required, Ricks says. “We can’t wait on legislation to change. We can’t wait on our very conservative state to say that it is OK to teach something more than abstinence.”