From SA to DC – how the Free Spirit conference changed my life

by Emma Fitzhugh | editor-in-chief

Thursday, April 9, 2015. It was just like any other day in my eighth period U.S. History class. It was towards the end of the year, so some of my classes had consisted of watching documentaries and taking notes. One minute I’m sitting there watching a video, and the next minute I’m having a mini heart attack as I skim through my emails on my phone. Seeing “WINNER” in the subject line made me want to scream with indescribable joy, knowing that I was about to embark on a truly incredible experience.

The Al Neuharth “Free Spirit” & Journalism Conference is an annual conference held in Washington, D.C. where aspiring young journalists are able to meet various media professionals and learn more about their first amendment rights. The program is designed for rising high school seniors who are interested in pursuing a career in journalism, and demonstrate the qualities of a “free spirit”. One student from every state including the District of Columbia is selected to attend the conference.

This program, sponsored by the Newseum Institute in Washington, D.C., was founded in 1999 in honor of Allen H. (Al) Neuharth, the South Dakota native who founded USA Today – the first nationwide (and in full color) newspaper, the Freedom Forum, and the Newseum, an interactive museum whose mission is to champion the five freedoms of the First Amendment through exhibits, public programs and education.

This past summer, the conference was held during the week of June 20-25, and it was a once in a lifetime experience I will truly cherish forever. At first, the idea of meeting 50 strangers seemed intimidating and strange, however, I quickly realized that there was never a dull moment when the 2015 Free Spirit Scholars are concerned.

Emma Fitzhugh (left) and Marion DeVore (right)
Throughout the week, I was able to meet 50 other journalism students who were extremely well traversed about their first amendment rights. One of my closest friends was Marion DeVore, from Idaho.

Prior to the conference, all of the scholars connected with one another via a Facebook group, where each person posted a short biography about themselves and their connection to journalism. Then, on Saturday, June 20 in a small room in a Holiday Inn hotel in the nation’s capital, it didn’t matter where we came from, what we looked like, how many times a certain Alabama-native said, “Roll tide”, or how “Catie” somehow translated to “Matilda”, because there was one very unique bond that seemed to connect everyone together: we all had a transparent passion for journalism.

Throughout the week, the 51 scholars attended various sessions where we were able to meet a wide range of media professionals, including Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff, co-anchors of PBS NewsHour, Ron Nessen, former journalist and White House Press Secretary for President Gerald Ford, former Freedom Riders including Dr. Earnest ‘Rip” Patton and Joan Mulholland, Chuck Todd, moderator of “Meet the Press”, New York Times photographer Doug Mills, and of course, digital journalist and media strategist Val Hoeppner.

In addition to attending sessions and learning more about the typical life of a broadcast journalist, and how to incorporate social media into your publication, just to name a few, there were several other memorable experiences that I was able to be a part of. These included: meeting Dr. Courtney Radsch from the Committee to Protect Journalists, going on a cruise along the Potomac river, participating in an intense interactive news trivia game, engaging in a mock trial with Judge Royce C. Lamberth (from San Antonio, Texas) and facilitator Rebecca Fanning, touring USA Today, listening to Ms. Janice’s creative songs about the first amendment, and meeting previous Free Spirit scholar turned New York Times writer and author of “The Monopolists” Mary Pilon, who offered some really great advice about pursuing your passion even if it seems odd or contrary to popular belief. In addition,  just being able to tour the incredible Newseum; the place Al Neuharth refused to name after himself. The place that encompasses the constantly-evolving world that is journalism.

I won’t talk about how Marion DeVore (Idaho) always had a smile on her face, how Maggie Lohmann (West Virginia) was so kind to everyone, how Olivia

2015 Free Spirit Scholars
The 2015 Free Spirit scholars pose for one of many group photos. This photo was taken on the last day of the conference, on the highest floor of the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of Maria Bryk and the Newseum Institute.

Koontz(Colorado) and Rosie McCormack (Montana) and I all have one rare thing in common, or how Brian O’Gara (Rhode Island) and Sumin Woo (Maryland) could always keep everyone laughing, but I will say this:

This conference was such an extraordinary event that I feel so grateful to be a part of. Thanks to this conference, I can now say with pride that news writing isn’t just something that 20 other students and I enjoy doing during one class period; it’s something that connects everyone, all over the world, all the time. It tells a story, it has character and integrity, and it’s emotional and dynamic. And according to Dr. Radsch from the CPJ, “In many parts of the world…you almost have to be an activist for press freedom if you’re a journalist. You have to do something to protect the ability to do journalism,” and that’s exactly how I want to live my life – being an activist for justice and truth.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email