Student shares experiences at Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Convention

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I have met the future president of the United States. In fact, I have ridden on a bus with, eaten meals with and spent a week sleeping in the same hotel as the future president of the United States. I have met future members of congress, future cabinet members and future governors. I have met future doctors, lawyers and teachers. I have met 50 future journalists, and they are 50 of my best friends.

As a small town, east coast kind of girl, I never thought I would meet someone from Alaska, or, if we’re being completely honest, Montana or Wisconsin. Looking into the future, I always saw myself leaving this town, this county, maybe even leaving North Carolina. College was an exciting prospect, but a far off and almost fantastical one. For years, my classmates and I gazed into the future and saw it as an inevitable happening, but not one that would truly affect us. At graduation last spring, with the realization that college was truly a real thing that was happening to our friends, and, in a year, us, we started to panic a bit. At least, I did. How was a girl from a tiny town in western North Carolina supposed to achieve greatness (or even mediocrity) in any place where everyone hasn’t known her for 17 years?

On June 21st, as I boarded a tiny plane flying out of Asheville headed for DC, this was the question on my mind. After I changed planes in Charlotte, I landed at Reagan National airport, full of anticipation. I didn’t know that the next week would change my life.

When the new Newseum – a museum entirely dedicated to the media – decided to move from Arlington, Virginia and move across the Potomac to Washington D.C. in 2000, the board approached Al Neuharth, former head of Gannett and the founder of USA Today. They wanted to name the new location The Neuharth Newseum. Neuharth was flattered, but refused. Instead, he wanted to start a scholarship and conference for high school journalists. The Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference is an experience like no other. A fully funded week in the nation’s capital, a chance to meet famous and successful journalists, and an opportunity to explore the field that interested all of us.

We started each day at the Newseum, attending sessions and listening to speakers like Sara Ganim, a pulitzer prize winning journalist, Rep. John Lewis, a freedom fighter from the civil rights era, and Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff of the PBS Newshour. We spent the rest of our time visiting museums, monuments and taking a tour of the Capitol Building. The atmosphere of the week was charged with the excitement and ambition of 51 rising seniors ready to make their mark on the world of journalism.

Despite the incredible experiences, the most influential part of the conference for me took place sitting in a hard metal chair in the concrete courtyard of the Holiday Inn. Each night after the day’s official schedule ended, we would congregate out on the hotel’s patio, the scraping of seats against the ground mingling with the sound of debates on everything from abortion to women’s rights to what state really makes the best barbecue. Never before had I been surrounded many bright and enthusiastic people, so eager to change the course of history. Perched on the edge of my seat, heatedly discussing gay marriage and the pros and cons of ketchup or vinegar based barbecue sauce, I imagined that someone glancing out their third floor hotel room window would see something just as interesting and important as we had earlier that day, looking down from the press balcony of the capitol at debating members of congress.

A week later, boarding a tiny plane and heading back toward Asheville, I realized that the week had given me something I never expected. I thought that I would have a great time seeing Washington, that I would meet some cool journalists and learn more about my chosen career path. I had no idea that I would make 50 new friends, fall in love with the capital and gain the confidence I desperately needed for the future. I, a girl from a tiny town in western North Carolina, went to a place where absolutely no one knew me, and I achieved mediocrity. More than that, I achieved greatness, and I know I can achieve greatness wherever the next few years take me. How could I not? I have met the future president of the United States, and they are one of my best friends.

Applications for the 2015 Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism conference are due Feb. 1, 2015.

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