Last fall, I sat in on a class at Harvard University filled with students who were working on graduate degrees in higher education. The professor posed a simple but enlightening question. She asked how many of us had attended a community college, or knew someone who had.

I was among the few in the room of 60 or so people who raised a hand.

I had gone to a community college before earning my bachelor’s degree from a small, public university in Florida. But, apparently, a number of my Harvard classmates were unfamiliar with the institutions that serve so many of this country’s poorest students, including those who are, like I was, the first in their families to go to college.

As a longtime education reporter and a mother, it was disheartening. Here were dozens of brilliant men and women who undoubtedly will become administrators and other leaders who will help guide the futures of our colleges and universities. They will be asked to tackle problems in areas such as degree completion, but lack important insights into a key piece of the higher-education equation—and a key student population.

Earlier in the semester, I had quietly celebrated the ethnic and racial diversity of the class. I’d estimate that nearly half the students were black, Latino, or from other minority groups. The discussion about community colleges, however, made me rethink what it means to have diversity in educational leadership.

That experience made me think about what diversity means in our newsrooms. As journalists, our backgrounds color how we view the communities we cover and how we interpret what we see and hear. Our experiences affect what stories we pursue, how we report them, and the importance we give certain news items in our newspapers and on our TV and radio programs.

I write about education through the eyes of the poor. I can’t help it. And, really, I think my newsroom is better because of it.

I was born into a family that was too busy trying to make sure everybody ate and had shoes to worry about what kind of education anyone got. My Grandpa Wamsley was a West Virginia coal miner with 20 children, including my mother, who dropped out of school before the ninth grade. My dad was one of eight kids raised on a subsistence farm in the midst of Appalachia. As a teenager and an adult, he almost always worked two or three jobs at a time to pay the bills.

I grew up in a Florida trailer park about 45 minutes south of Daytona Beach. In school, I was the girl who wore the same pair of magenta-pink pants two or three days in a row. I was the kid who devoured everything on her lunch tray—even the soggy broccoli and the bits of lettuce covered in watery orange dressing—because I knew it would be my best meal of the day.

I write about education through the eyes of the poor. And, really, I think my newsroom is better because of it

I was the youngster who hated to miss school because that was where I got love and encouragement from teachers like Mrs. Virginia Allen, who told me I was smart and pretty. It was also my refuge, the place I was safe from the evils that haunted my life—physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect.

Later, I was the teenager who knew little about college or how to get there. I had to figure much of it out on my own. In college, I struggled to find my direction and relied on friends to help me navigate the often-confusing world of financial aid, campus housing, and academia.

These are the experiences I’ve drawn upon when writing about issues such as teacher quality and college access. When I investigate problems and ask tough questions, I try to represent parents and students who don’t have the time or the courage or the know-how to do it themselves.

That was the case in late 2011, when I began investigating a hazing that killed a drum major at Florida A&M University (FAMU). I discovered that school officials had been unwilling or unable to control a culture of abuse that had existed within FAMU’s famous marching band for decades.

Over the next year, I uncovered a slew of additional problems, including financial mismanagement and troubling admissions procedures that were contributing to the university’s low graduation rates. State leaders demanded big changes at FAMU in Tallahassee. Among the results was a string of firings and forced resignations and retirements, including that of the university president.

I acknowledge that, over the course of my career, I have worried sometimes about not having the same quality of training that my media colleagues have had. I didn’t go to graduate school. I didn’t even go to journalism school. But I understand the need to hold accountable those who control our schools, colleges, and universities. I know firsthand that education and a positive learning experience can help transform a person’s life.

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