Kristen Laubscher, a senior at Chapel Hill High School in Chapel Hill, N.C., shared her experience as the North Carolina representative at the 2011 Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference.
As the season of college applications come to a close and high school seniors shift to anticipating acceptance letters, I am reminded of a coveted large envelope that I received last May.“Congratulations! You have been selected to attend the 2011 Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference,” it read.
After a comprehensive application process, I was the one student chosen from North Carolina to attend the journalism conference, held this past summer in Washington D.C. One rising high school senior was selected from each state, as well as Washington D.C., and all 51 of us were given an all-expenses-paid week of incomparable experiences relating to the field of journalism.
The conference, which was designed to encourage students to pursue journalism, gave me inspiration and much more in only six short days.
The schedule was impressive: tours of the White House and Capitol building, hours spent at the Newseum (an interactive journalism museum), watching the taping of NBC’s “Meet the Press” with David Gregory … the list could continue for pages. The aspect of the conference that had the greatest impact on me, however, was the people that I met.
We had exclusive question and answer sessions with prominent journalists like David Gregory, Judy Woodruff, John Hillkirk, USA Today founder Al Neuharth, and the Triangle’s own News and Observer publisher Orage Quarles. The sessions gave us first-hand accounts of what life is like as a successful journalist.
Then there was the discussion with two of the Freedom Riders, which emphasized another aspect of the conference: the First Amendment, and what to do when those five rights are violated. Our whole group also stood on Pennsylvania Ave and recited the First Amendment. The five freedoms were ingrained in my memory, and knowing them has been important not only for my A.P. Government class this year, but also in being a considerate citizen.The leaders of the program made it clear that the 51 of us were their priority, and I am still awed at the amount of work and effort that they put into giving us such a memorable week. They mentored and encouraged us, and I will always remember eating lunch next to the CEO of the Freedom Forum and Newseum, Charles Overby, and witnessing the impressive dance skills of the president of the Freedom Forum Diversity Institute and leader of the program, Jack Marsh.
Even among these outstanding experiences and people, it was the 50 other incredible Free Spirit Scholars that made the trip, as I told my friends and family, “the best six days of my life.”When we all arrived the first day, Jack Marsh told us at orientation that by the end of the week, we would have become a family. I have to admit, I was a little skeptical. Six days is not a lot of time, and I could not imagine becoming that close with 50 other people so quickly. I can say, without a doubt, that he was absolutely correct.
Spending a week with a group of students who shared my passion for journalism, I formed lasting connections with them that will continue as we all move on into college and careers pursuing journalism or other passions. We were given behind-the-scenes access all over D.C. during the day, and had more fellowship time every evening. Our nights included a dance party on a yacht, night tours of the Washington memorials, and this country music lover’s favorite, a “Freedom Sings” performance by Nashville musicians.
No matter where we were, they inspired me and reaffirmed that journalism is not dead or dying. The 51 of us represented the future of journalism. Our ability to work smart phones and utilize social networking sites is important not just as a way to keep in touch, but also as the future means of a changing journalism.
As we await our college letters and begin to make decisions about where to attend, we will all carry with us the lessons we learned that week in D.C. about being a responsible journalist and citizen, as well as the support of our Free Spirit family. I came back from the conference with a renewed confidence in the importance and strength of journalism, one that makes me excited about being a part of its future.