Carrie Sandstrom, a senior at Century High School in Bismark, N.D., shared her experience as the North Dakota representative, in a Nov. 22, 2011 article published on her high school’s website.
When I first received my acceptance letter for the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism conference I couldn’t believe it. It was just too incredible to be true. I was floating. I was crying. I was ecstatic. Now, looking back at my week in D.C. this summer, I’m still left with that bizarre feeling of disbelief.
On my plane ride from the rural land of North Dakota where you can tell from the air where one field ends and another begins, to the trees that cover Minnesota, and ultimately to the sprawling metropolitan area that is D.C. my mind felt like it was racing through a maze, going fast with no clear direction. Doubts- would the others like me, did I really deserve this, what happened if I arrived and they said it was a mistake and I should go home- mingled with an overwhelming sense of opportunity and enthusiasm that refused to be quelled. When the plane landed, I stuffed the list containing the name and face of each state’s representative, the latest copy of our itinerary, and all of my hesitations and reservations into my bag; I took a deep breath, stood up, and smiled.
We gathered at the baggage claim and talked with the individuals who would soon become our comrades on a wild adventure. We were bused to our hotel, and my fellow free spirits and I made our way up to the second floor, our headquarters at the hotel. There began one of the most incredible journeys of my life.
I won’t try to recount everything that occurred during my time in our nation’s capital- there would simply be too much to cover. We met extraordinary people like David Gregory and watched a live taping of Meet the Press; we met Al Neuharth, who is not only an extraordinary journalist but an extraordinary human being; we met original Freedom Riders and cried as we shook their hands; and Mike McCurry, who was Bill Clinton’s Press Secretary and had an opportunity to hear him recount some of his experiences. We went to fantastic places like the White House, the Federal Courts, and we took nightly tours of the city, which is somehow even more beautiful when seen after a long day learning about the people who cover it. We also spent a large portion of time in the Newseum, a place where journalism and the rights of those in the field takes priority. The multi-floored testament to the first amendment at times made me laugh, sometimes made tears well up in the corners of my eyes, and always made me think. If ever you have one day to spend in D.C., make sure you spend some of it there. All these fantastic experiences were complemented by the many panels of journalists who we were able to talk to. We spoke with journalists who had made huge advances for the profession, journalists who had been in the business forever, and journalists who just plain knew their stuff. And we learned from each and every one of them.I think the most shocking thing I experienced during my time in D.C. was that we weren’t treated like high school students on an extended field trip- we were treated like professionals, like press. We attended a luncheon at the National Press club and were able to actively participate in a discussion on the state of the first amendment; we received US Capitol Press Credentials and listened to the debt-ceiling debates from the Senate Press gallery; and we actively covered our adventures using iPod touches and cutting edge media technology. We even ran our own tumblr feed.
Then we have the Free Spirits themselves- a group of exceptional individuals who are hugely passionate about journalism and the work they do. Each person there had a story and a drive. Each person added something to the group, whether it be a smile when you needed one, a good story shared over a good meal, or dance moves that rocked the floor. Us budding journalists were mentored and cared for by members of the Freedom Forum, people who gave us their expert advice and helped get us excited for our futures- people who became our role models and mentors and part of our extended family.The whole trip was exhausting. We woke when it was still dark outside and we didn’t return in the evening until it was even darker. We strained our minds during sessions and our bodies as we tromped through D.C. heat in suit jackets and business attire. But it was worth it. It was all worth it.
And in the end I guess that’s the message that’s stuck with me the most. That even though it’s work, and it’s hard, and sometimes it’s not that enjoyable, journalism is worth it- ruffling feathers and doing what’s right, what’s hard, is worth it.
Being a free spirit is worth it.