Al Neuharth Journalism Conference: Looking back at my D.C. trip

At the 2018 Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference in Washington, D.C., I had the opportunity to meet 50 talented high school student journalists. We all talked to numerous journalism professionals and saw the sights of D.C. at the five-day conference hosted at the Newseum. (Photo used by permission of Freedom Forum Institute)

Page by page, I browsed through my Google search for scholarships. As I scrolled through the list of web pages, nothing grabbed my interest.

Not until I came upon one link, about a scholarship for high school student journalists. One winner from each state would win a scholarship and travel to a conference in the capital city of the United States. I looked it over and thought to myself, why not apply? What do I have to lose?

And sure enough, to my surprise, come June, I boarded a plane at Raleigh-Durham International Airport and took the short flight out to the Washington Dulles Airport in D.C.

I had the privilege of representing North Carolina at the 2018 Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference in Washington, D.C. this past June. Over the course of five days, I met dozens of prominent journalism professionals and learned about the importance of the five first amendment freedoms, all while meeting 50 other teenage journalists from across the country (including D.C.).

I relished many experiences that the typical high school student doesn’t get to have, so many of them that they had to be crammed into each day’s 15-hour schedule. Each day’s activities started at the bright and early time of 7:30 a.m., and our group hopscotched all over D.C.

We spent much of our time in the halls of the massive Newseum, just down the street from the U.S. Capitol Building. The Newseum showcases all things related to freedom of the press and the first amendment of the Constitution, from the News History Exhibit to the First Amendment Gallery. All of our conference sessions took place within the walls of the Newseum, and we even had the chance to explore the museum as a group.

But we didn’t just stay in the Newseum all day. We visited the prominent USA Today newsroom (founded by the namesake of the journalism scholarship, Al Neuharth), the U.S. House and Senate press galleries, and many landmarks around D.C. such as the Lincoln Memorial, MLK memorial, and Jefferson Memorial. We even watched a studio taping of the longest running news show on television, NBC’s “Meet the Press.” The appearance of none other than Kellyanne Conway on the show that particular Sunday especially thrilled all of us.

The list of prominent journalists and others in related fields that I had the chance to meet goes on and on. Notably, I learned from reporters such as David Fahrenthold, Pulitzer-prize winner of the Washington Post, and Sara Ganim, Pulitzer-prize winner for her work on the Jerry Sandusky abuse story, and I also gained unique journalistic perspectives from people such as Mike McCurry, former press secretary for President Bill Clinton.

And as a girl with an extreme interest in sports journalism, I really enjoyed having the chance to meet and talk to Lesley Visser, former sportscaster and one of the first pioneers for women in sports media. Visser received the Al Neuharth Award for Excellence in the Media from the Newseum during the span of the conference, and I even had the remarkable chance to pick her brain as I sat next to her at the awards dinner.

But the food at the conference stole the show. Esteemed chef Wolfgang Puck catered the entire conference, lunch and most dinners, complete with a wide range of foods and fancy glass water bottles. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever eaten so well before.

Ahead of the conference, I truly didn’t know what to expect. But the scale and organization of the entire event blew me away, as I gained so much more from it than I could have ever imagined. It wasn’t just your average academic camp—it was an engaging, inspirational experience that fueled my interest in journalism even more.

The camaraderie I formed with so many other high school journalists struck a chord with me, in addition to the event itself. Meeting each of them and hearing their experiences, I came to admire each and every one of them. By the end of the conference, I had only known them for five days, but it felt like I had known them for five years. We still communicate via GroupMe to this day; almost everyday, I wake up to hundreds of messages sent at 1:00 a.m. in the group chat.

And with our current president that continually attacks the free press, seeing so many other teenagers wanting to pursue journalism or a similar career gives me hope.

From each conference session, from each meeting with professional journalists, from each conversation with my peers, I learned more about the true importance of journalism. And in our world today, the importance of journalism is greater than ever.

Now I’m more confident than ever that I’ve made the right decision in pursuing journalism.

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