Realizing Why: True Confessions of a Free Spirit


Brian O'Gara , Editor-in-Chief

This past June, I was fortunate enough to attend the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference, a national scholarship program held at the Newseum in Washington D.C. each year that invites fifty one rising high school seniors (one from every state and D.C.) to experience five days of meeting and learning from famous journalists, photographers, and media personnel.

When asked to look back on my extraordinary week in Washington D.C., I feel an uncanny resemblance to the elderly character of Rose Dawson Calvert from Titanic when she utters the words “It’s been 84 years…” Although not nearly wrinkly enough to give those words true justice, I can’t help but be in disbelief that my trip to our nation’s capital occurred a little over five months ago – it feels like yesterday that I disembarked the jet at T.F. Green Airport in Warwick and greeted my Dad with a humongous grin plastered across my face upon returning to Rhode Island. But summers always do race by, and when you’re swamped with college applications, AP classes, and a multitude of extracurriculars, so does senior year. My week in D.C. isn’t something I will ever forget – a cliché phrase I know, but oh well. From the amazing professionals I heard from, to the witty, goofy, and loveable friends I snapped selfies all around national monuments with, my five days as a part of the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference are a time I simply cannot forget. So here it is: true confessions of a Free Spirit (slightly edited to eliminate shrieks of “Take me back!”)

Not surprisingly, my story begins with screaming, and yelling, and tons of loud vocal expression. On April 9th, during a normal Period 4 of interning in the Newspaper Office, I opened up my email inbox and saw one word above all else: “WINNER”. I never thought I would be selected for a national program that only chooses one kid from each state – never, never, never.

But June came quickly (thank God), and off I was whisked to the capitol city via airplane, completely unaware of how eye opening the next few days would be. Upon landing at Dulles International Airport, I navigated my way to the baggage claim section and met the other Free Spirits who also landed there: Emma from Texas, Emin from Vermont, Zia from Kansas, Ben from Oklahoma, Morgan from North Dakota, and Haleigh from Louisiana. After meeting and rejoicing with the main group of teenagers at the hotel, we all set out on foot to explore the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, which was enticingly located just two blocks from our home-away-from-home. And thus the week of learning and fun officially began – with the exploration of the museum, we were all posed with the first journalistic discussion point: should the American government use drone airplanes to secretly monitor other nations? How far is too far in government surveillance? From there on out, my week was filled to the brim with amazing learning experiences – each day packed from dawn until well after dark with activities, discussion sessions, and touristy excursions all aimed at conveying the vast, multi-faceted importance of journalism.

Looking back now, I can’t believe how many amazing professionals I conversed, took pictures, and ate lunch with. On Sunday morning the 51 of us watched a live taping of NBC’s “Meet the Press” with Chuck Todd, and witnessed an emotional interview with the family of Rev. Daniel Simmons, who was killed with eight other people at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina only three days prior. Themes of racial inequality and prejudice continued to be a theme during the conference, as we also listened to a panel discussion of original freedom riders Earnest Patton and Joan Mullholland, who dealt first hand with the racial tensions of the 1960’s American South. Actual Freedom Riders – people who were jailed, beaten, repressed, degraded, and even killed in attempts to create a truly equal nation. I learned firsthand from those two experiences alone how journalism has the ability to highlight and publicize injustices within our society, which is an infinitely powerful tool I hope is never taken for granted.

But to me, the most powerful session we sat through came later on in the week, when Courtney Radsch, PhD, talked to us about the dangers facing journalists today. As the Director of Advocacy for the Committee to Protect Journalists – a national organization that works to promote media safety and transparency throughout the world – she explained to us how the world is not like America, and in many places free speech simply doesn’t exist. While I was never ignorant of this fact, I had no idea what really happens in other countries when journalists ask questions. The 51 of us watched a video about James Foley and Steven Sotloff, the famous American free-lance reporters who were beheaded by ISIS militants in Syria in 2014. But many other people who strive to inform the world of injustices are targets of the powerful too, not just Americans. A reporter in the Philippines raped and executed by the police for questioning about officer corruption, a journalist in Paraguay shot and killed for probing the involvement of the local government in drug cartels. Dr. Radsch’s presentation was nothing short of chilling – we were all silent as her voice rang throughout the Newseum’s Journalists Memorial, which displayed the pictures of more than 80 journalists who were killed around the world just in 2014 alone. It made me extremely thankful to live in America, a country where the First Amendment protects us and allows us to ask questions about the world in which we live. But Dr. Radsch also made me feel motivated to fight for the rights of all humans, and reminded me why journalism is so crucial to humanity – to tell the stories that are hard to listen to but must be heard.

These few details are just a brief glimpse of what my week in Washington D.C. was like: presentations upon presentations given by passionate experts and leaders in the field. I had lunch with Mary Pilon, a bubbly and charismatic Free Spirit alum (2004) who happens to be the New York Times bestselling author of The Monopolists, a book that tells the true and turbulent history of America’s most beloved board game – a piece of investigative reporting in itself. I heard Ron Nessen, a former White House Press Secretary and Vietnam reporter, speak about the modern era of media and how much has changed since he acted as President Gerald Ford’s representative to the public. I witnessed and participated in a mock trial in D.C. District Court that revolved around the rights of student journalists regarding high school publications. I met with Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff from PBS NewsHour (which I was raised upon) and even was able to wander through the Senate and watch an official press conference on Capitol Hill as a member of the congressional press! This conference has provided me with so many phenomenal, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that I simply wouldn’t have experienced otherwise, and I know that as long as I live I won’t ever forget how fascinating, informative, and fun they were.

But I would be lying if I told you that the only memories made from this trip were about the sessions I participated in. A big, huge part of why the Al Neuharth Free Spirit experience was so transformative and extraordinary was because of my fellow Free Spirits. You would never think that you could become best friends with 50 other people in just 5 days… but that’s exactly what happened. As we paraded from monument to monument in the warm night after 14 hour days, glided over the sunset-lit waters of the Potomac on our river cruise, waited in line at the Ben and Jerry’s in Alexandria, and outwitted each other in ridiculous rounds of Cards Against Humanity, I got to know each and every one of them. It’s cool enough just to know teens your age from every single state plus D.C., but to meet other people as passionate, inquisitive, energetic, and (in some cases) nocturnal as me was truly exciting. Throughout the conference, every speaker we listened and met told us that we are the future of journalism in America, and I don’t think that the industry could be in any better hands than those of the friends I made this past summer.

It’s hard to really describe what this program has meant to me. I’ve typed over 1400 words at this point, and yet I have still only managed to brush upon the surface of what my experience on this trip has been like. Beyond mesmerizing, immersive, eye-opening, and extraordinary, there aren’t many one word phrases to describe the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference. I initially thought on the flight to D.C. from little Rhode Island that these five days would only concrete the idea of becoming a journalist in my mind, and that nothing about me would change from this experience. But as much as I may hate to admit it, I was dead wrong. Thanks to Al Neuharth (the founder of USA Today) and his legacy of “Dream. Dare. Do” to inspire the next generation of America’s journalists, I have been altered in a way. My future is now blasted wide open with possibilities of advocacy work, White House correspondence, and investigative reporting. However, I am as positive as any one person can be that no matter what happens to me and my life, I want to continue telling those stories that must be heard. I’ve always had a loud voice, and now I know why.

Upon graduating from the program with, AJ (left), Dani (center), and Jan Neuharth (far right). Courtesy of the Newseum Institute.
Upon graduating from the program with, AJ (left), Dani (center), and Jan Neuharth (far right). Courtesy of the Newseum Institute.