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My Free Spirit Summer Experience

Julia Howell, Editor in Chief

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Free Spirit ‘17

Throughout my life, I have always been the type of person to just put myself out there. From being the first person to raise my hand to take any opportunity I have to go to any new place. When I signed up for the Al Neuharth Free Spirit Journalism conference in the winter of 2017, I was not expecting this event to change my life completely. My personality overtook the worries I had about going to a brand new place, all by myself or a week with a group of people I have never met, but I was hoping to experience something new. Every day I think about the 50 new friends I have made or the speakers that came from all parts of the world to talk to us or the connections I made with professionals or the passion that took over inside of me. This trip and conference inspired me to follow my passion and become a journalist more than I could have ever imagined.

For those who may not know, Al Neuharth Free Spirit Journalism conference takes place in Washington D.C. during the summer between a student’s junior and senior year of high school at the Newseum. When I applied I was truthfully expecting COMPLETE rejection. I LOVE journalism and knew I had a large passion for it, but I didn’t know if that would be able to be represented through the writing and application I submitted to the Freedom Forum committee who would only choose ONE student from each state. I knew from state competitions and conferences that there were kids who were definitely more talented than me, but I never met a kid as passionate as me. After I saw my first byline on my very first story printed in our school paper my sophomore year, I realized that I never wanted to stop seeing my name under a piece of work that meant so much to me. And although I didn’t know much about the conference or what would happen, I knew Al Neuharth Free spirit and journalism conference would help push and inspire me to getting to the top of this very competitive industry. I clicked “submit” and hoped for the best. I remember sitting in Trigonometry and getting an email from one of the Al Neuharth staff members reading, “Congratulations you have been chosen to represent Kansas this summer in Washington D.C…….” My jaw dropped, I couldn’t contain myself. I grabbed all my stuff in my arms, tried to get across to my teachers in legible words that it was an emergency and I had to go and I ran all the way down the stairs to the back hallway where I interrupted my journalism advisor’s (Mrs. Hooper) class and yelled “I AM THE FREE SPIRIT HOOPER, I GOT IT.” Shaking I showed her the email and we hugged and screamed and for the entire day and weeks following, we couldn’t stop telling people that I was chosen as the Kansas Free Spirit. I knew from that point on that I was about to take on an experience I would never be able to forget.

Almost six months after the conference and I still are not able to put into words how great the week was. For sure my favorite part of the conference was the atmosphere. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by fellow students, program directors, speakers, etc. who thought just as I did. I was able to express concerns about my publication or asks questions about my future and career to everyone around me and I was met with a solution I could never come up with myself. Some of my favorite speakers from the conference was from Val Hoeppner who gave me many tips about digital journalism and learning how to reach an audience from afar, Sara Ganim who talked to us about winning a Pulitzer prize as such a young journalist and teaching us how to pursue the truth of a story no matter the obstacles that may be faced and Martin Baron, a man I still feel honored to have met, he inspired me to take a hold of stories you know are right and make sure to ask the uncomfortable questions.

Besides the remarkable speakers, another part of the atmosphere that contributed to a life-changing event was the 50 other friends I met at the conference. A best friend I met at this conference was the Missouri representative, Tony Madden. We did not meet each other like the rest of the Free Spirits who first introduced themselves to each other once they all got to the hotel after traveling. From Kansas City Missouri to Fort Lauderdale Florida then finally to D.C., Tony and I were together in three different planes and 3 totally new places for a total of over 14 hours with 2 bags lost. At first, this was very disappointing to the two of us. We had missed an afternoon full of activities, and we were stuck with a complete stranger in a very stressful situation for way too many hours. But by the time we had finally gotten to our hotel in Washington D.C., we had already created an inseparable bond and had been making jokes all day. Now we call or text each other at any time of the day for critiques or questions about our publication or to just sit and talk to about exciting things we want to share it with our best friend. It’s sad and really hard that we live a state away and that we can’t just hop in our car and go hang out like we would with any other of our best friends. This harsh reality comes when I think about any of my free spirit friends. Sometimes I wish we all went to the same Free Spirit high school in our own Free Spirit town (man, that town would have a kickin’ paper). But the miles and miles that separate all of us have never stopped us from being friends. I still talk to my Free Spirit friends and have learned that keeping a friendship with someone who lives miles and miles away creates a bond that is unbreakable and like nothing I have experienced before.

When I got home from the conference all my friends, family, neighbors, etc. were asking me about it and telling me how remarkably proud they were for me. I can’t say that I live in a small Kansas town but many people I know do not go to a conference when they are 17  to represent an entire state, so it was a big deal for many people. After a while of talking to people I realized that no matter in what way I say it to them or for how many hours I explain how remarkable the experience was, they will never fully understand. I could never thank the Neuharth family and staff for all that they have done for me. I could never thank them for the special friendships I have made, with bonds that are strong enough to be kept thousands of miles away from each other, I could never thank them enough for the contacts I made with professional writers, editors, photographers, etc. who are living my dream working in successful publications and I could never thank them enough, for instilling in me the passion to carry out the first amendment no matter what it will take of me and to make sure that whatever life may throw at me, I will NEVER stop, Dreaming, Doing and Daring.

 

Thank you, Al.

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My Free Spirit Summer Experience