Student Reflects On Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference

November 14, 2018

This past summer, I attended the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference, hosted by the Freedom Forum in Washington, D.C. I was chosen to represent the state of Alabama, as there were 50 other attendees, one from each of the states and D.C. The experience was by far the most compelling and impactful five days of my life, and I will cherish the opportunity for the rest of my life.

The foremost theme of the conference was the preservation and celebration of the First Amendment. On the first day, each attendee was asked to speak to the rest of the class about their favorite component of the amendment. Hearing each the thoughtful responses gave me hope for the future and set a positive and steadfast tone for the rest of the week. The freedoms guaranteed in the first amendment are fundamental to the continuance of our free society, but some elements of it have been under scrutiny recently from the highest ranks of government. It was sobering to hear almost every speaker mention this fact because it highlighted the danger such rhetoric poses to their livelihood.

We got the chance to meet and interact with a number of prominent figures in journalism and government. We watched a live recording of Meet The Press with Chuck Todd, discussed the relationship between the press and the White House with former Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry, and learned about the life of a sports broadcaster with Lesley Visser. In addition to those we met in the sphere of journalism, we learned about the judicial process in a local district court, took a behind the scenes tour of the Capitol building, explored the historic exhibits at the Newseum and ate some of the fanciest food I have ever dared to try. Each new experience brought with it a wave of excitement and mystery. I sometimes wish I could do it all over again, just to feel those same emotions another time around.

Despite all of the previously mentioned once-in-a-lifetime events, the coolest part of the trip was meeting and 

befriending the dozens of other extremely inspiring and driven student journalists from across the nation. I cannot describe the incredible feeling of spending quality time with others that share the same passions and interests as yourself. It was one of the first times I felt completely at home with a

group of people, which translated into immediate friendships that last to this day. I still speak with several people I met at the conference every day, either via text or Skype. The most amazing part of the experience may have come after the end of our five days together when we continued our conversations and built a strong, unified community for encouragement, advice and just friendly banter.

After reflecting on my week in the Capital, I reexamined my hang-ups about journalism as a future career. From touring the massive USA Today headquarters and finally seeing firsthand the work that millions of writers contribute to the profession every day, to witnessing the production of a professional cable news panel show, I saw a glimmer of what initially attracted me to journalism. Even from conversations with past Free Spirit scholars, I realized the opportunities this career affords and the vast array of forms that it takes. Overall, the lessons I learned, the experiences I had and the people I met in my five days with the Freedom are things that I will treasure forever.

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