The odds were stacked against my going to college. No one in my family—not my parents or seven cousins, not the great aunts and uncles who lived a few hours away—had earned a degree. My central Louisiana high school didn’t have a guidance counselor, and my parents could only afford for me to take the ACT once. The Internet was new enough then that I never searched for colleges online, but my mother navigated the sparse web until she learned how to get money for school. She stayed up late filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, inking down her meager salary to ensure I won a Pell Grant. When a glossy brochure arrived inviting me to attend a liberal arts college in Mississippi, I applied without researching further.
That college didn’t have a journalism degree, but it did steer me down a path far easier and more lucrative than the ones my family members have traveled. After graduation, I headed north for a newspaper job at The Oregonian. Editors assigned me to the education beat when I started at the daily in 2007. Over time, as I learned about the ways school boards allocate money and determine district boundaries, as I noticed that the schools with the highest free- and reduced-price lunch rates also had the lowest test scores, I started to wonder about the education systems back home. What did it mean that some schools offered Advanced Placement classes, while others, including my own, did not? Did the ACT prep classes my rich friends took assure them a lifetime of greater opportunity? Should I have chosen a different college? As an adult, I learned that I could have attended a Louisiana university for free. My grades and test scores were high enough that I even qualified for a monthly stipend. But teachers never told me about the scholarship, and my parents didn’t know it existed.
Last August, after 11 years at The Oregonian, I left the newspaper because I wanted to learn more about the Southern states that shaped me. I spent a school year at Columbia University studying poverty, politics and education. Today all of it — my childhood, my working life — paid off in a dream job. I'll spend the next school year writing about inequality and education in Louisiana and Mississippi for the Hechinger Report, a journalism nonprofit that consistently produces some of my favorite work about the South. I'll still be freelancing (and have two non-Hechinger pieces in the works right now), but I'm so grateful for the chance to go home.