Attending the 2019 Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference has been a dream of mine since I was introduced to it in 2018. After applying and waiting months to hear back from the exclusive journalism conference in Washington D.C, I was notified that I would be living out my dream along with 50 other high school journalists from each state and the District of Columbia.
After setting my luggage down in my room, a group of us rode the metro to the National Museum of Natural History. There, I immediately connected with the representative from Arkansas, bonding over our shared love for baseball and the rapper DaBaby. As the conference went on, my worries about the other students began to dissipate. Not only did I become friendly with the representatives from Oregon, Nevada and Idaho, but I still keep in touch with them today. By the end of the conference, I acquired valuable journalistic skills and made lifelong friends with the same career goals as me. As sad as I was to be missing out on traditional summer experiences, I knew that this experience would prove to be beneficial to me, I just didn’t know what the extent of the benefits would be.
The following days taught me various things, including how to be more effective on social media, what a good application looks like, what kind of coverage is necessary for each type of story, how to talk to adults and how to carry myself with sophistication like an adult. The week consisted of too many panels to count, which required me to be attentive even at the most boring of times. Some panels were uninteresting to me, while some made me think and opened new doorways in my life. For instance, radio host Val Hoeppner spoke to us about how to be more effective on social media. I took an interest in this discussion mostly because Ms. Hoeppner is an avid USA Women’s National Soccer Team fan and there was a World Cup game that day. Aside from the soccer talk, Hoeppner explained to us that your first order of business on social media is to identify your purpose. In my case, being in charge of news accounts, I identified that my purpose is to provide the news to viewers. After recognizing that, I have improved the accounts that I am in charge of by posting more relevant information.
The day after Val Hoeppner spoke to us, we had a feature panel of Free Spirit Alumni. Among this panel was a man I came to admire: Derrell Bouknight. Bouknight was the Washington D.C. representative for the 2014 conference who went on to attend St. John’s University in Queens, New York. He was the lone alumni sports writer and had an immediate impact on me. After he explained what the program did for him and how it led to his new job with CBS as a news associate, I approached him without hesitation. We talked for upwards of 30 minutes about all things NBA. At the time, perennial All-Star Anthony Davis had just been traded from the New Orleans Pelicans to the Los Angeles Lakers. This came as a huge shock to Derrell and I because we thought that the window had closed on an AD move earlier in the season when New Orleans rejected an offer for the majority of the Lakers’ future. We continued to talk about the buzz surrounding the NBA and my favorite player: Kemba Walker, who I was afraid would leave the Charlotte Hornets amid free agency. As Derrell predicted, Walker later signed with the Boston Celtics, breaking my heart into a million pieces. My conversation with Derrell made me understand how professional sports journalists think and act: with an unbiased, open mind.
Along with meeting countless media professionals, my experience was fraught with tours of museums, memorials and municipal buildings. Among these tours, my favorite was a walking tour of John Wilkes Booth’s escape route from Ford’s Theatre, where he infamously shot and killed Abe Lincoln. We followed the path that Booth took from the back entrance of the theatre, through major streets and parks to his horse. It was surreal to stand on a street that was once a dirt road with no street lamps, lights, power lines, advertisements or skyscrapers lining the street. This made me take into account all of the history that Washington D.C. has been a part of. From this aspect of the trip, I discovered a new found desire to travel and experience history first hand.