Al-Neuharth Free Spirit Conference: How 50 strangers gave me my self confidence

Natalie White , Editor-In-Chief

This summer I had the privilege of attending the Al-Neuharth Free Spirit Journalism Conference as the Illinois representative. Judges chose one student journalist from every state (yes, even Alaska) and the District of Columbia to attend a one week trip in Washington D.C..

To be honest, I did not know if I wanted to major in journalism, but I know I want to continue to push the truth, whether it be good or bad. Many of the other Free Spirits felt the same way and realized that journalists are needed more than ever.

“The biggest takeaway is that there is a need for honest, fair, and true journalism that all rests in the hands on the ones who aren’t afraid to stand out,” Louisiana representative Carson Caulfield said.

Throughout the trip, journalists of every type spoke to us, from Pulitzer Prize winner Marty Baron to National Geographic Editor-in-Chief Susan Goldberg. As I sat with wide eyes soaking in every controversial opinion and fascinating story, I noticed everyone around me doing the same. Fifty-one students were united through their love for the First Amendment and journalism. This love was already instilled in me however, and was not my biggest takeaway from the trip.

The harsh truth is that as a senior, in less than a year, I will be leaving everyone I know. I don’t know what will happen or how I will find my grounding and group. These 50 other students calmed those nerves that twisted my stomach when I thought about leaving. Instantly, all the journalists accepted each other and we became the closest 51 strangers you could imagine. We discussed our publications’ issues as well as personal issues that only our closest friends knew about.

Nebraska representative Amelia Jarecke knew that she loved writing for her school paper, but didn’t think it would be possible for a small town kid to make it in the journalism field. Through the Free Spirit trip, that apprehension was diminished by her peers.

“I think everyone from the conference would agree that we’re not all that different. We all love having fun and want to see positive change in our lifetimes,” Jarecke said.

The eyes of Georgia representative Molly Weston were opened to the varying conditions of student journalism across the country. She felt inspired by everyone from sports broadcasters in South Carolina to First Amendment advocates in South Dakota.

“I hadn’t had a lot experiences where I felt completely humbled by every single person in the room. The conference showed me what true ambition looks like. More than anything it made me want to get back home and hit the ground running,” Weston said.  

More than anything, these people proved to me that when I upped my roots, I would be able to find people that motivate me and make my college life an amazing experience. A bus full of people who were once all strangers gave me confidence in most seniors most fearful situation.