Dream. Dare. Do. The Neuharth family uses these three words to represent the Free Spirit & Journalism Conference, and, most importantly, Al Neuharth’s philosophy in life. For the past few days, this is what we have been doing–dreaming, daring, and doing; stepping beyond our comfort zones and taking risks. I am proud to say that I spoke to and befriended nearly every single person at this conference, a feat that would’ve been impossible for me two years ago. I learned about their life stories, their dreams, and their journalistic experiences. We often spoke for hours at a time, and soon enough, each person became a distinct aspect of our entire class. The 51 state representatives assembled together to create a beautifully diverse group: a girl whose motivations as a journalist are driven by her father’s brief, yet frightening, arrest in Korea many years ago; a girl who rebelled against her school’s censorship of the newspaper by starting a secret, underground publication; a star football player recruited by Harvard; an aspiring President; a boy who dreams of being a foreign correspondent in Russia; a budding politician; and a scientist–to name a few. Everyone in that group is a dreamer–beyond Columbia and Northwestern and Harvard and NYU, each person carries a vision for the future, just as Al Neuharth had. In fact, most of these visions are not only for individual success, but for the greater good. These people are incredible.
If I could summarize every moment of the Free Spirit conference, that would take pages upon pages of blog posts. Thus, here are a few of the most compelling moments of my week:
- “Adventure is essential for survival”—Dr. Thomas Marshburn, the most recent American astronaut to complete the spacewalk, said these words to us at a session at the Newseum, while also live commentating a live spacewalk. Dr. Marshburn epitomized free spirit for me. Many of us, while growing up, dream of becoming something as idyllic as an astronaut. And Dr. Marshburn did it–he took a dream, and followed it. After hearing him speak, I realized that passion is the key to success–the rest follows.
- Ron Nessen, the Press Secretary to former president, Gerald Ford, was the session I had been anxious about for weeks. Nessen taught us a different aspect of journalism: getting back up after falling. During the Vietnam war, he was, in fact, shot, which affected the rest of his career. However, he returned to Vietnam three more times after that. Perseverance is the word that comes to mind. Even more, Nessen’s seminar, along with the rest of the conference, rekindled an interest in politics for me, which had started this past year. Political journalism comes with so many dynamic opportunities.
- Vietnam Memorial– I had never thought that the Vietnam Memorial would have been so heartbreaking. I had always heard about it, seen pictures, but never realized the weight each name carried–the families and loved ones and lives left behind. Ahead of the wall, I saw a park ranger stop and salute. In front of one panel was a bouquet of fresh flowers. Men and women stopped and caressed the names, sometimes crying. Others spoke of those they knew from the war. I never realized how many people had died from the war.
- Cruise ride along the Potomac–we went aboard a private dinner/dance cruise for a few hours. Around sunset, all of us moved to the top deck, where the beautiful horizon delineated the Potomac. We could feel the wind blowing, hear the sound of the water sloshing, and see how sometimes you just need to stop and take a breath. The latter was especially necessary amidst such a busy week. I always find such peace in floating along rivers.
- Freedom Riders– people who stood up for what was socially unacceptable; people who took the initiative despite abuse, despite opposition, despite the lingering threats. Many died, but for a cause. We spoke to Freedom Rider Dr. Rip Patton, as well as journalist John Seigenthaler. Seigenthaler’s story was particularly compelling for me–he spoke of how he was raised in a racist environment, and opened his eyes with the help of books. Everything he said was profound—how, while in the military, he had an epiphany which led him to open his mind; how he helped two colored women escape, getting knocked out himself; how he was honest with every word.
- The 9/11 Exhibit at the Newseum– when I was at JCamp, I spent only about five minutes at this exhibit because I couldn’t bear the weight of the artifacts– the destroyed satellite on top of the Twin Towers, a filled wall of news stories from the day, comments from young children, photographs of the only working journalist who died, and live footage of the unraveling events. It was the latter that drew me back this time. CNN replays its 9/11 newscast every September 11th, but the footage at the Newseum is much more raw and compelling. One of the videos that sticks with me is of a journalist interviewing a crying woman, and finally broke down in tears–he noted that it was his first time ever crying during an interview. 9/11 tore this country apart, but simultaneously brought it together in the aftermath. This was evident when I stepped outside of the theater–three of the other free spirits were huddled around, holding onto each other, tears rolling down their cheeks. It was one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve ever seen.
Leaving off on that note, I am honored to have been a part of the Free Spirit conference. I am honored to have been nominated as one of the three most free-spirited girls to run for class representative. And, most importantly, I am honored to have created these connections with such talented, unique, compassionate, accomplished, and ambitious students. Like JCamp, the Free Spirit conference was both enlightening and humbling. It put the world in a new perspective, and made me more aware. When, or if, I become a journalist, working for TIME Magazine or NatGeo or a start-up, I know I’ll remember this conference and everyone involved. Most importantly, I’ll remember Al Neuharth because he taught, and proved, that with a free spirit, anything is possible.