A week of journalism in Washington D.C.

Callan Garner , Social Media Manager

Specifically remembering the time I was publicly laughed at for wanting to volunteer in Thailand was the moment I solidified my want to change the world. I had just opened myself up, talking about the passion I had to volunteer overseas, and was only met with a burst of laughter and a quote I will never forget.

“You can’t even get yourself out of bed on time, how are you going to get yourself all the way overseas, not even to be paid?”

And whether it be out of spite, or sheer passion, I knew in that exact moment that I will show every skeptic just what I will do.

Over a year later, the first step in this continuing dream presented itself to me. After a missed call from D.C. and a quick sprint down the hallways of CMR, I burst into my journalism classroom, only to be met with the same excitement felt vibrating through my body. For the previously missed and disregarded call was forwarded to Beth Britton in a congratulatory nature; I had won the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference in Washington DC.

Beginning to cry out of pure joy, I knew that not only was this an extraordinary, once in a lifetime, opportunity, but one that will open doors still currently unheard of.

Growing up in a town with a population that has yet to even reach 100,000, D.C. was a massive step in trying to understand the ever growing world.

Although daunting, I still had a few months to wrap my mind around the idea of winning an all expenses paid, 5 day, journey into the heart of our country.

Yet as the departure day neared, my fear turned into that of excitement; excitement to witness this new hub of activity without the comfort of my parents presence, excitement to witness diversity at one of its most extreme (within the US) and excitement to further my passion for the world itself.

As I sat on the plane listening to my specifically pre-made playlist, my heart was racing. The plane picked up speed and I waved goodbye to the airport in which my mom was still sitting in, crying with pride.

Hours later, stepping off the plane ironically with a bloody nose, I rushed into the bathroom forcing myself to not even notice the very obvious difference in culture. The people, the societal pace, and even the restaurants were all completely different than what was back home.

The Free Spirit Conference only picks one outstanding journalist (junior year only) from each state to be represented every year in D.C. The award is highly prestigious among journalism careers and colleges. Yet the work required to be considered is easily forgotten during the brilliancy of the conference.

During the next five days, I learned more about myself and the world at work, than I have ever learned in the previous 17 years.

Getting to meet people like Chuck Todd, Leslie Viser, Times lead photojournalist, and the Neuharth’s themselves were all experiences I will never forget. One which stood out in particular was the hour and a half spent with an old freedom rider. He sang songs that used to be sung to keep the guards awake, or songs used to keep spirits high. He was the very definition of the type of people I wish to listen to and learn from in my upcoming years.

However, the most impactful experience was the one that has now become the origin story of my future career.

Feeling slightly isolated during the final awards dinner, I was at odds with myself. I was in a room full of extremely influential journalists and future journalists, yet I was not sure I completely wanted to become a journalist. These individuals were so passionate about their careers, I felt as if I was a fraud. Mulling about, I decided to use the skills taught to me during the conference. Find a different angle, talk to someone most would seemingly look over.

With this thought, I saw the woman who had followed our group around all week, yet who had received little thought. She was a freelance photojournalist hired to photograph the recipients of this year’s award. Uploading stunning photos during her time spent with us, I decided to ask if she would mind sparing a few minutes of her time to sit and talk with me.

A previously thought of as short time, turned into time I craved could last longer. She told me about a photojournalism project down in South America she was trying to start, yet she needed an anthropologist to receive a grant that would help them pay for this extravagant trip. This was a struggle she constantly came across during her career. With this in mind, she gave the advice that became my inspiration; if you have a passion for both culture and photojournalism, why not do both? With this, you won’t need anyone else to travel and tell these stories, for you can do both the research and the presentation. Exactly what I wanted to do, this began to shape my future aspirations.

Going overseas to tell the stories of people, previously unheard, previously unknown. With this career path, I would be able to travel, listen to the stories of people that could change the minds of thousands, and do it all as a job. It was perfect, it was exactly what I wanted.

All thanks to this conference I found my passion and I found my purpose in life. For with my love of diversity, love of volunteering and love for photography, I could make a life full of happiness doing what I love, all the while giving the people a voice, allowing them to tell their stories.

Previously unsure of what this looked like, one of my pieces written for the application described what this career had in store, I was just lacking the knowledge of such a career.

“Driven by what can only be described as passion, I cherish the fact that one day I will tell the kind of stories that alter hardened opinions to something that helps readers embrace change. These stories are what shape people into who they are today. So instead of focusing on the facade of a person, I will focus on the aspects of a person that become buried over time, allowing people to really think differently about what they are seeing. No longer do they see a homeless man, but a war veteran who sacrificed his sanity to save an entire family. This passion of mine will fuel my motivation and drive my capabilities to the furthest corners of my potential. Fine-tuning these skills into something brilliant will help me tell the stories of those most deserving.”

This conference not only gave me a future worth working towards, but it gave me a home among many passionate people. It showed me that passion isn’t something to be afraid of, but something worth siphoning into pure revolutionary actions. And although I am not the dictionary definition of a journalist, I am the dictionary definition of a free spirit. I am the heart of what this conference was founded on. And with this, I could not be more thankful.

I, along with every other free spirit invited were given the opportunity to discover parts of themselves previously unknown. Thanks to the conference, I have found who I am destined to be. In my closing statement of one of my application essay’s, I was able to sum up the entire experience, without even understanding what I would gain on this extraordinary adventure.

“If you had a chance to really tell your story knowing that it could impact hundreds, maybe thousands, would you do it? I would.  As we become a society based more around “hard and fast” news bites, I strive to turn it into something else. No longer being a quick tweet, or small Instagram paragraph, but a story of a girl in the heart of Montana hoping to change lives.”