A few weeks back, I posted about leaving for Washington, D.C. for the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference. Let me tell you, this conference was one of the best experiences of my life, and I’m not exaggerating in the slightest.
I got to meet with 50 other high school seniors from all 50 states and the District of Columbia for a week in Washington, D.C. This week was seriously the fastest week of my life.
Each day, my roommate Nabiha and I would wake up around 6 a.m., dress in our conference wear, and run downstairs to breakfast before getting on a bus and heading for the Newseum. Every day was packed with seminars, workshops, panels and incredible meals. I mean, seriously, what more could a hungry student journalist ask for?
There were so many highlights of the week, but the biggest one was getting to meet one person from every state (and the District of Columbia)! It was absolutely incredible getting to see all of the different personalities and backgrounds everyone had, I’d truly never heard of an experience quite like it. The entire group of 51 was laser-focused on journalism and their passions surrounding it. For me, being in D.C. was an experience unlike any other, because for the first time, I was surrounded by other people who were just as passionate about journalism as I am.
Something I didn’t know much about before attending the program was political journalism. Suddenly, I was surrounded by numerous people who were well-versed in politics, and with a visit to Capitol Hill and Meet The Press, it put everything into perspective. I’ve personally never seen myself as a political correspondent or reporter in the future, but getting to learn from my peers was something I never expected out of the conference, but I’m so glad that it happened. It’s definitely a huge benefit to be well-versed in policy and really invest some time into catching up on the latest debates, you never know when a question about them may come up (Newsmania, anyone?)
One of the events I became obsessed with while at the conference was the Olympics. I met reporters that had covered the Olympics several times, and all of the sudden, I was inspired to go someday. Hey, I’ve never been a huge sports person but I still remember watching the summer Olympics with my cousins in New York several times over.
Panels included those about internships, digital media, augmented reality technology in journalism, diversity, investigative journalism, fake news and more. I loved getting to hear from professionals from CNN, NBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post and more. Sitting in front of professionals during the program was awe-inspiring and I was getting so many ideas for what I want to do with my future by just sitting and taking notes… I really managed to fill an entire composition notebook within just 5 days.
One of the highlights of the conference was definitely getting to meet members of the alumni network of “free spirits.” There have been over a dozen free spirit classes, and each year, they have the ability to reconvene at a ceremony presenting the Al Neuharth Award for Excellence in Media. On a rainy night at the program, we all dressed up to attend a dinner and the presentation of the award, which was given to an incredible Pulitizer-prize winning photojournalist, Carol Guzy. She was so sweet and her photographs were breathtaking—several of her photographs are also displayed in the Newseum.
The other free spirits and I got to bond each night through tours of historic landmarks and memorials, as well as creating some TikToks at night in the hotel lobby. Some of my fondest memories of the program were riding on the bus while sitting next to someone new. I’m telling you, I got so many life stories in the span of just a couple hours (some of the best occurred at Busboys and Poets… you all know what I’m talking about). It’s honestly so surprising how similar all of our life experiences had been even though we each live in such a different place. Getting to know the other free spirits was exciting and emotional on so many different levels. In just one week, I’d made friends that I know will last a lifetime (our group chat is still going strong 2 months later)! On our last night, we headed to Virginia and boarded a boat for a final dance party and dinner. I miss every second of it; if I could spend one last night with them, I definitely would.
Leaving the program was bittersweet, especially when we found out that the current location of the Newseum would be closing at the end of 2019. Leaving our home for the week was heartbreaking because we knew we’d never get to see it again, but it was also encouraging to know that we had built such strong relationships between us and were ready to carry on the Newseum’s legacy. I beg you, if you have the chance to visit the Newseum between now and December 31st, you really won’t want to miss it.
I’m looking forward to reuniting with some of my free spirits, hopefully next year at our reunion or even in college (seriously, how cool would it be to be roommates with one of them?). I’m so grateful for the experience I had in D.C. and I’ll forever owe the Freedom Forum, Newseum and the Neuharth family for changing my life in just one, short week this summer. If you’re out there reading this wondering if you should apply, you definitely should. Don’t doubt yourself, you could have one of the best weeks of your life.