Student journalist gleans lessons from peers as well as experts at conference

Mackenzie George, Editor in Chief

Part of me still wonders whether the 2017 Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference was some kind of social experiment. Throw a kid from every state, plus one from D.C., into a room and see what happens. If I’d been in on it, I would have predicted cliques would form and competition would ensue, particularly since the conference application involved letters of recommendation, transcripts, and two thoughtful essays. These kids were supposedly the best and the brightest in the field. Journalists, perhaps: storytellers, freedom-seekers, the leaders of tomorrow—certainly. The kind of people who desperately craved the truth.
One of the first clues that this would be unlike any other camp I’d ever attended came to me long before I set foot on the plane for D.C. It came in the form of an Instagram direct message from Audrey Mostek, a recent follower of mine, who lives in Kalispell. She was last year’s Montana representative, and she was quick to assure me that this would be a life-changing experience (weren’t they all?). She encouraged me to press her with questions, and I did. Audrey assured me that it would be easy to make friends—we were all in the unique position that literally none of us would know each other. Like any good role model, she also encouraged me to ask questions. Audrey had made it a goal to ask every single speaker or panel at least one question. To me, that seemed excessive: I had spent three years of high school doing my best to blend in. I waited for at least two others to talk before I commented in AP U.S. History; I agonized over each Instagram caption to make sure I didn’t sound glib; my last tweet was from April, and now we were discarding our jackets in warm June weather.
But I promised I would. I decided that I would squeeze every drop of knowledge from this opportunity, and damn it, I didn’t need to try to fit in here. I would probably never see the rest of these reps again anyway, and I didn’t need a friend in every state. I would network with these fancy-schmancy writers and photographers and editors and publishers, and it would be great.
I didn’t factor in that these kids would be the friends of my dreams. These free spirits were thoughtful, intelligent, hardworking, and funny as hell. One of my best friends from the conference was, like me, a tennis player who liked the musical Hamilton. We shared earbuds and listened to a combination of Kendrick and Lin-Manuel Miranda during our morning commute to the Newseum each day. And it was completely by chance that I befriended Mimi. I was one of the last free spirits to arrive and nearly missed the bus to dinner. A single seat across the aisle from her (and Cody, another close friend) was open, and I practically fell into it as the driver started toward the Hard Rock Café.
In the end, I was very, very wrong about the camp. I did need a friend in every state. I needed to meet Fons and hear about life in Kentucky, and I needed to admire his class ring and be supportive when he bought a giant stuffed eagle from the Newseum gift shop for some exorbitant sum. I needed Anna-from-New-Jersey’s bubbly attitude to pump me up each morning and keep me awake for our jam-packed night schedule. I had to meet Cody to appreciate his dedication to high school journalism. I still remember him so eager to read my speech in that tiny blue notebook. After he’d carefully turned each fragile page, he told me what I needed to hear: that “I can hear your voice saying these things…it’s amazing.” I was so glad that I had grown closer to Angelica, who seemed quiet at first but who had great stories and is just about as nice of a person as you can be. I needed to meet Kainoa to appreciate someone who holds onto a sense of curiosity, who wants to not just learn more about the world but fix it.
Amelia, my roommate, stayed up with me until 2 a.m. before our last day. I wrote and rewrote, and she listened attentively as I practiced. She even videoed it when I gave it the next evening so I could send the speech to my parents.
I do not keep in touch with every single person from the conference individually. That would be an astronomical task, and it would take away from the quality of each relationship. There is an enormous group chat on GroupMe with all of us. Each day, new messages are added, and I love scrolling through to see what everyone’s up to. There is a smaller group of us on Snapchat. That’s even better. I get small glimpses into 16 different states regularly. There’s a certain kind of insight to that that is very rare, I think.
And there are a few who I still talk to every day. How amazing it is that one short week can translate into the kinds of enduring friendships.
I feel more in tune with this profession now: its importance, its challenges and rewards. But I also feel more in touch with my country. I get to hold onto a piece of each state. My own experiences, and the ones we all shared together, are interwoven now.
On my flight home from the conference, my plane was delayed. I already had a tight connection once I landed in Minneapolis, and here I was sitting on the Baltimore runway for half an hour. I texted my dad and then Mimi, who lived there. Within minutes I received a “You can stay with us!!” Then she was asking for my flight number so she could see what time she’d need to drive to the airport to pick me up. It was like a spontaneous sleepover, the kind you adored when you were 12—I felt that same kind of excitement when I called my dad to tell him I had a place to stay.
In the end, I did the running-through-the-terminal thing and did catch my flight. And although I was excited to surprise my mom and be home a day early, I felt a twinge of disappointment for not getting to spend time with Mimi, who I hadn’t seen in 12 hours (the horror!).
When I was touring colleges in California, we had a day in Sacramento. I texted Kainoa, and on Tuesday afternoon, a white minivan showed up at our Mexican restaurant to take me to the river. It was so crazy cool to see another Free Spirit scholar, especially outside our little bubble in D.C. We caught up and I met some California kids. On our drive back into the city, I asked if he kept in touch with any of the other free spirits. “Outside of the group chat?” he asked (he’s in the smaller Snapchat one). “No, not really.” His mindset was that it was great…and now it’s over. He told me he’d enjoyed the fact that the camp wasn’t cliquey, that he liked the free spirit kids more than the other j-camp he’d attended in Philly, but he found it hard to keep in touch every day.
I understood that. Maybe June 17-22 was like living a little life. You had a beginning, middle, and end; there were hundreds of tiny experiences that were now memories. Maybe everything had to come to a close. Maybe that close was when we all hugged and cried in the lobby of the Holiday Inn.
But if that was the end, why does our Snapchat group still talk as though we’ll be meeting up in the park this afternoon? Why do we compare colleges we are applying to as though the next four years are going to be just like that one perfect week, all of us—or at least some of us—together?
An experience like the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference cannot have a finite timeline. If these are the leaders of tomorrow, we will cross paths again. If we are all as free-spirited as we claim to be, we will find ways to keep in touch or even spend time with those we want to. Maybe even Kainoa knows that. Because after I’d thanked him for taking me to the beach, his text back ended with, “Hope you liked Sac enough to come back sometime.”
I would not have appreciated Sacramento as much if I had not seen the sandy beach of the river, if I hadn’t found that pocket of green trees and cool water. And I wouldn’t have had that if I hadn’t had Kainoa to show me where to jump the fence to get there. I would not have appreciated the fabulous opportunities that threw themselves at me throughout the conference if I had not had these amazing people to share them with. So yes, my dad was right: in the end, it comes down not to what you know, but who you know. That is the lesson I learned a thousand times over at the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference, and that is what I will take with me for the rest of my life.