College cradle

Wright State’s Billi Ewing watched her baby daughter grow up on campus

Billi Ewing holding graduation card

Wright State graduate Billi Ewing watched her baby daughter, Tobi De’Ja Nicol Ewing, grow up on campus. Today, her daughter is a recent college graduate who is working for Ralph Lauren in Manhattan. (Photos by Erin Pence)

She was known on campus as “the girl with the little girl.”

Arriving at Wright State University in 1995 to pursue a degree in communication, Billi Ewing brought 2-year-old Tobi De’Ja Nicol Ewing, the daughter Billi had when she was only 15.

The two were inseparable companions. They lived together in The Village apartments. They walked the campus and tunnels together. When Billi worked at The Guardian newspaper, the Student Union Activities Board or was leading a communication class as a teaching assistant, De’Ja was often there.

“I didn’t realize it back then, but De’Ja literally grew up on a college campus,” said Ewing. “Her consciousness and memory kicked in at Wright State. She would proudly walk around campus as if to say, ‘Look at this big place where we live. All of my other friends live in little houses, and this is all ours.’”

Today — 20 years later — the 38-year-old Ewing is celebrating her and her daughter’s journey and giving thanks for the outcome.

With the help of De’Ja’s father, a strong, nurturing family and many supportive teachers, Ewing navigated and excelled in high school despite being a teen mother. She got her college degree and then watched her daughter bloom into a strong young woman who just graduated from a prestigious, East Coast liberal arts college and landed a job with the Ralph Lauren Corporation in Manhattan.

And then there was the scare.

Last summer, Ewing noticed blurring in her right eye. Her fear of needing laser eye surgery was only heightened when she was informed what the real culprit was — brain tumor. She sent her daughter back to Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, for her senior year without telling her.

“We had gotten to the daggone finish line,” Ewing said. “She had done so well, and I didn’t want to derail her.”

Removing the tumor took 13 hours of surgery, a weeklong hospital stay and three months of radiation. Test results later showed the tumor to be benign. Finish line.

Ewing says her early lesson of perseverance as a teen mom gave her the strength to get through the health scare.

If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, “move from here to there” and it will move; Nothing will be impossible for you (Matthew 17:14–20).

“I call myself a faithful fighter,” said Ewing. “When a situation is out of your control, you’ve got to have faith, you’ve got to fight or you’re going to fail.”

Billi Ewing with momentos

Billi and Tobi De’Ja Nicol Ewing were inseparable companions at Wright State, and De’Ja often joined her mother at The Guardian newspaper office, Student Union Activities Board meetings or in class.

The 15-year-old Ewing was a student at Meadowdale High School in Dayton and in her second year of the Wright STEPP summer camp when she discovered she was pregnant. Wright STEPP is designed to increase the number of students from public schools in Dayton and Springfield with the academic skills to earn their bachelor’s degrees in science, technology, engineering or math.

Ewing had been excelling at Meadowdale. She wrote for the school newspaper and won a variety of literary competitions and talent shows. She played chess, the violin, the piano, sung in her church choir and was also active with several community youth organizations.

While Ewing’s pregnancy altered her lifestyle and day-to-day schedule, it didn’t knock her out of her academic trajectory. She graduated with honors, in the top 10 percent of her class, just as she foretold in a newspaper article written about her at the start of her sophomore year.

“I didn’t have to do anything different, but just stay true to who I already was. I made a conscious effort to have Billi stay Billi,” she recalled. “I talked myself through it. I said I was going to be in the front of my class and didn’t let anything get in the way of that.”

Ewing got recruited by a “fancy boarding school,” but she wouldn’t have been able to bring De’Ja. That was a dealbreaker.

“It’s almost like Wright State chose me,” Ewing said.

Wright State offered her four years’ free tuition as a Wright STEPP scholar. She was able to get an apartment in The Village because she was considered a nontraditional student and could live there with De’Ja, who called Wright State home until the age of 7.

Being a student and young parent wasn’t easy, but Ewing made it work.

“The toughest times would be during exams,” she said. “I needed to study, and De’Ja would want to play or just have my undivided attention as ‘only children’ do.”

Ewing also interned at the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, working as an office automation assistant in human resources.

Ewing believes De’Ja’s days at Wright State helped her forge a path to success. She would go on to become a standout dancer and athlete at Stivers School for the Arts and won a scholarship to Skidmore College, where she started several clubs and won various student leadership awards.

Today, De’Ja, as she’s fondly called by family, is a product development assistant for Ralph Lauren, helping select shoes, bags and other accessories for the clothier’s luxury fashion lines.

Meanwhile, Ewing counts her lucky stars for Wright State.

“Each time I stuck my hand out and needed help, there was somebody or something on the other end. Wright State literally did that for me, 100 percent,” she said. “From Wright STEPP all the way to the end. I’m forever grateful.”

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