Free Spirit: A reflection on five days in Washington DC


Matt Troher, Editor-in-Chief

April 5, 2018 – I remember waking up that morning, early as I had to for my-early bird class, and looking out my bedroom window. The sunrise was particularly striking that day, oozing shades of creamsicle orange and lavender, and I remember thinking to myself ‘today is going to be a great day’. Little did I know that that day would change my life – for the better – forever.

During seventh period, I was sitting in A Capella choir, going over music for the upcoming graduation concert, when I decided to take a break and grab a sip of water. Standing by the water fountain in the Fine Arts hall, I prolonged my break by checking my phone. A seemingly innocent GMail notification popped up on the screen.

The notification read “WINNER – 2018 Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference”

As soon as I read the subject line, I got weak in the knees and couldn’t believe my eyes. I had done it. I had won.

For those who may not know, the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference (or as I like to call it, Free Spirit, for the sake of simplicity) is a competitive Journalism award open to all high school juniors across the country. Following an application consisting of samples of my writing, two essays, and letters of recommendation, judges then comb through all the entries from across the country to pick one winner from each state (and DC).

The 51 winners are flown out (all expense paid) to Washington DC to partake in five-day long conference covering anything and everything dealing with Journalism and the First Amendment. I was lucky enough to be chosen as the Illinois representative for the conference.

Flash forward a little over two months later, and I found myself sitting in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, waiting with nervous energy for my journey to begin. My mind was abuzz with fantasizing all the new people I’d meet and all the new things I learned.

No amount of fantasizing could prepare me for the real thing. The world of graduation parties and playing tennis with friends was left behind, and I was suddenly thrust headfirst into the world of newspapers and politicians.

As I descended into DC, I was greeted with sights of the Potomac and the Washington Monument, all testaments to the great city I was about to find myself in. After I got off the plane and waited for what seemed like eternity for my luggage, I was greeted by the friendly smiling faces of the Free Spirits from Vermont and Florida, where we passed the time sharing stories about our respective publications.

Now I won’t bore you with every minute detail about my experience in DC – my Instagram does a pretty good job capturing that – but I will go over some of the highlights. I got to sit in on a taping of the NBC morning show “Meet the Press”, and I found myself sitting just 20 feet away from Kellyanne Conway.

I attended Q&A’s with Pulitzer Prize winners such as David Fahrenthold, who uncovered the inaccuracies of Donald Trump’s charity claims, as well as Sara Ganim, who broke the Jerry Sandusky abuse scandal.

I dined in some of DC’s finest restaurants, and attended a banquet honoring famed sportscaster Leslie Visser. Not to brag, but that banquet was catered by Wolfgang Puck and Associates, and I had the pleasure of eating the best steak I’m sure I’ll ever eat.

For those who know me, the Free Spirit conference was a dream come true for a journalism dork like me – not to mention the free Peet’s coffee they served at the Newseum, the incredible museum dedicated to free speech that served as the homebase for the conference. But when I look back at my five days in Washington, the first to come to mind is not the fancy food I ate, nor the politicians and journalists I got to hear speak – although they all were really cool – I remember the people that I met.

I remember Stella from Delaware, who shared the same passion for indie music that I do.

I remember Jacob from Alabama, who has that funniest twitter out of anyone I know.

I remember Brodie from Oklahoma, who is without a doubt the world’s biggest Oklahoma State University fan (as well as the orange blazer he sported for most of the conference).

I could go on for 47 more paragraphs, but I’ll spare you the time.

What I got the most from my five days in DC was a newfound respect for the people that will cross paths with my life. I think author Jamie Tworkowski says it best.

“You’ll need coffee shops and sunsets and road trips. Airplanes and passports and new songs and old songs, but people more than anything else. You will need other people and you will need to be that other person to someone else, a living breathing screaming invitation to believe better things.”

The fifty incredible student journalists that I met in Washington DC are my invitation. When I think of them, I am reminded of the good there is in the world, how there are people out there that share my love of journalism and the search for the truth. Whenever I am feeling unqualified, I think of the Free Spirits, the people themselves, and that fact that I’m one of them gives me enough motivation to take on the world – or at least Downers Grove.

Through my five days in DC, what I took away most is that people are at the heart of life, and without them, there would be no story to tell.