Student journalists assemble for Free Spirit conference

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Student journalists assemble for Free Spirit conference

The 51 Free Spirit scholars who attended this year's conference pose for a photo with Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff of 'PBS NewsHour.' Conferences during the week took place in the Newseum, a museum dedicated to journalism and reporting in Washington, D.C.

The 51 Free Spirit scholars who attended this year's conference pose for a photo with Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff of 'PBS NewsHour.' Conferences during the week took place in the Newseum, a museum dedicated to journalism and reporting in Washington, D.C.

Photo used with permission from Maria Bryk/Newseum

The 51 Free Spirit scholars who attended this year's conference pose for a photo with Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff of 'PBS NewsHour.' Conferences during the week took place in the Newseum, a museum dedicated to journalism and reporting in Washington, D.C.

Photo used with permission from Maria Bryk/Newseum

Photo used with permission from Maria Bryk/Newseum

The 51 Free Spirit scholars who attended this year's conference pose for a photo with Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff of 'PBS NewsHour.' Conferences during the week took place in the Newseum, a museum dedicated to journalism and reporting in Washington, D.C.

Conor Battles, Editor-in-Chief, Arts & Entertainments Editor

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It is one of the most cherished traditions in student journalism.

This past June, 51 students from across the nation convened in Washington, D.C. for the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference. One student from each state and the District of Columbia was chosen through a rigorous application process, and spent five days in the nation’s capitol workshopping with professionals and getting to know one another.

“Meeting everyone was such an amazing experience,” Virginia representative Catie Harper said. “I made friends that I will have for a lifetime.”

Students were hosted by the Freedom Forum, a nonpartisan charity organization dedicated to spreading awareness of First Amendment rights. USA Today founder Al Neuharth established the Free Spirit program in 1999 to highlight rising high school journalists and award them with professional experience and a college scholarship.

The Lancer Spirit continued their nine-year consecutive streak of representing the state of New Hampshire at the conference, as Editor-in-Chief Conor Battles was selected to represent in April.

The conference, spread out over five days, included seminars, workshops, and lectures. Guest speakers such as PBS NewsHour’s Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff, President Gerald Ford’s press secretary Ron Nessen, and former Free Spirit and published author Mary Pilon discussed everything from ethics in journalism to using the latest technological advancements to supplement traditional journalistic field work.

The students also took many trips outside of the conference room, including to a taping of NBC’s Meet the Press and a tour of the USA Today offices in Virginia.

The changing landscape of modern journalism presents a distinctly daunting field to enter, but the 51 students who attended this year’s Free Spirit conference were left with renewed confidence and vigor.

“Being selected made me realize that becoming a journalist is something I truly have a passion for,” Alabama representative Kendall Criswell said. “It also silenced the teachers that constantly remind me how ‘not many people ever leave Odenville, Alabama,’ and that, despite the financial adversity I battle with each day, I can still amount to anything I set my mind to.”

To many, however, the conference was not all about the workshops and speakers. Rather, the unique bond formed over five days remains strong six months later.

“It’s amazing how you can stick 51 kids with similar dreams together and watch them turn from strangers to friends to family in a little less than five days,” Maryland representative Sumin Woo said. “I wouldn’t give up my experience or this wonderfully quirky, opinionated, and driven group for the world.”

The enduring legacy of the Free Spirit program is one of strength. Not only strength in the newsrooms and publication houses of America, but strength of confidence, friendship, and competitiveness between the nation’s rising journalists. The Free Spirit conference allows student journalists an opportunity to start out in a fiercely competitive, rapidly-changing field with a little more know-how and a network of support unlike any other in the industry.

“It’s nice to know the future of news is in good hands,” Montana representative Rosie McCormack of Montana said.

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