By Sydney Tomlinson
I have a friend in every state in the U.S, plus the District of Columbia. That wasn’t the case a few short months ago, and I feel incredibly lucky to be able to say it today.
How does one make fifty friends from across the nation, from Alaska to Alabama and everywhere in between? I’m sure there are many ways, but I was fortunate enough to attend the 2016 Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference. For just five days, I, along with my fellow representatives from each state and the District, attended seminars and panels, visited the offices of renowned news organizations, and explored the Newseum in Washington, DC.
While every Free Spirit held a deep passion and respect for journalism, many students did not plan on pursuing journalism as a defined career path. In realizing this, I was both surprised and encouraged. I will always love journalism, yet I have, at times, questioned whether the path of the reporter is the one for me. Spending a week with fifty talented, intelligent, driven young journalists with a variety of passions and goals was deeply comforting. It helped me realize that we can have passions, joys, and talents that we do not choose to pursue with our lives or college majors, and I, for one, was relieved. I know that I will always write, I will always be drawn to stories and advocacy and underdogs, just like my Free Spirit peers, but I do not necessarily have to be a reporter to admire the field or follow those passions.
In addition to journalism, a major focus of the Free Spirit Conference is the freedoms of the First Amendment, as the conference is hosted by the Newseum Institute and Freedom Forum, which focus on First Amendment education and advocacy. As we spent the week discussing these freedoms and our respective passions and plans, I came to a bit of an epiphany. It is necessary to our society, to our democracy, for there to be people in every profession who value the liberties granted to us by the Bill of Rights. In this way, it is necessary for there to be doctors, scientists, lawyers, teachers, and everyone in between who respect and value the First Amendment and understand the fundamental importance of a free press in this country. If journalists were the only ones who valued the freedoms of the press, there would be no need for that free press to exist. The First Amendment impacts all Americans every day, not just those who work in media. An open and free press continues to be a crucial tenet of our democracy, and this week spent in DC surrounded by inspiring journalists, young and old, was a deep testament to the continued importance of that, despite the growing prevalence of “news is dying” naysayers. We will always need journalists, but we also need others outside the press to support and respect those journalists and the important work they do in maintaining our freedoms as Americans.
For anyone that has ever been to summer camp or a similar summer program, you can likely relate to the strong bonds and friendships that form amazingly quickly in these situations. We met and heard from Pulitzer Prize winner Sara Ganim, host of NBC’s Meet the Press Chuck Todd, former White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry, legendary ESPN reporter Chris Berman, and countless other experts in the field of media. Every day, we were awed, honored, and humbled by their wisdom and advice; we even ended up with a few inside jokes with Chris Berman. But when the week came to an end and we boarded our separate— very delayed— planes, I realized the moments I would miss the most were those with my fellow Free Spirits. As a high school student with a passion for writing and journalism, being surrounded by like-minded peers for a week while also being entirely immersed in journalism, politics, and storytelling was a wonderful and inspiring experience.
So what now? Well, all fifty-one of us continue to connect everyday via social media. Special thanks to a lovely little app called Group Me for allowing us a space to chat 24/7— without blowing up our phones. Luckily for me, the November 2016 JEA Conference is taking place right down the road in Indianapolis, so many of us will be able to meet up in person very soon. With college right around the corner, we’re keeping each other updated with our applications and plans. Most importantly, I can now proudly say that I have an intelligent, kind, like-minded friend in every corner of the country. The experiences of the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference were unforgettable, and I am grateful for all the opportunities it has given me. But the best part of the trip will always be the relationships formed. I now have a pal to hang out with (or couch-crash) no matter where I am in the United States, and that’s pretty cool. Road trip anyone?
Image: Courtesy of the Newseum Institute