My week as a Free Spirit

An insight on what it's truly like to be a Free Spirit.

Courtesy+of+the+Newseum+Institute.
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My week as a Free Spirit

Courtesy of the Newseum Institute.

Courtesy of the Newseum Institute.

Courtesy of the Newseum Institute.

Courtesy of the Newseum Institute.

Meg Friel, Editor in Chief

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With December now on the horizon, I find myself reflecting back to my summer scripted with memories of my trip to Washington, D.C. for my week as a Free Spirit.

In the spring of 2016, I was selected to be the representative for the state of Maine for the Al Neuharth Free Spirit Freedom Forum scholarship. In order to be selected, I was asked to submit two essays: one as to why I’m a free spirit, and another about why I’m interested in a future in journalism. I also submitted three of my most proud pieces of work, along with a transcript. Only one winner is chosen from each state, and I was the lucky one. The scholarship is presented by USA Today and the Newseum in honor of USA Today’s founder, Al Neuharth. Neuharth was known for his bold moves and independent qualities – the true embodiment of a free spirit. On July 17th, I flew out to Washington D.C. – hopeful, curious, and reasonably nervous for my week as a Free Spirit.

Upon arriving at our hotel, I was greeted by a small handful of my Free-Spirit friends. I sat in the conference room of the hotel, freezing, but more overwhelmingly: intimidated. Since my freshman year, I’ve been kind of sure I wanted to pursue journalism. As the year passed and I soon moved up the ranks to editor, I became almost sure, and, come junior year, I was confidently sure – journalism was it for me. This was my story, and I was sticking to it. Well, most of me was. There was always a small whisper begging me to doubt myself. This conference turned that whisper into a scream.

Finally, all 50 of us were seated and chatting, getting to know each other, or meeting up with our roommates. Conversations floated past me of talk about different spreads, layouts, and websites (apparently commonly used) – all of which I had never heard of. Scholars gushed over print vs. online; they gossiped over their favorite journalists they’d been dying to meet; they even began comparing ideas on angles of new stories they’d been working on over the summer. I just wanted to unpack.

Our week unfolded quite eventfully: from meetings with well-respected journalists such as Sarah Ganim or Chuck Todd to a live taping of “Meet The Press”; there was never a dull moment. Each morning began at 6 a.m. to get ready before our 7 a.m. breakfast, and then off we were to the Newseum, which soon became a second home to me, to take notes on different speakers, presentations, or panels of journalists all inspiring us with their tales of how they made it. We were then sent off to eat lunch and hear about different journalists, and even had the pleasure of speaking to the Neuharth family frequently, giving us insight on the original Free Spirit himself. We would then move on to another adventure, whether this be touring the halls of Capitol Hill or walking through the newsrooms of USA Today, to spending a more relaxing afternoon in the heart of the Newseum to explore the different exhibits. We’d once again meet with more journalists, then move on to dinner at popular restaurants scattered around D.C. My personal favorite was Busboys and Poets. We’d typically finish the day off with a monument tour, then straight back to the hotel for our 11 p.m. room checks. Not a single moment was to be spared, nor a single extra minute of sleep. Coffee was my crutch.

With every new morning, I’d start to get to know my Free-Spirit friends more and more. I noticed the quirky language thrown in from almost everyone from the southern states, from “y’all” to new slang like “bougie” (meaning cool,) and even got made fun of myself for over-using the word “wicked.” One similarity I did notice, however, was the passion in almost all of these journalists. They thrived on their newspapers and ate, slept, and breathed journalism. They always circled back to the conversation of their majors: whether it be sports broadcast, column writing, political science with a double major in journalism – the list goes on. This was until I met Emily.

Courtesy of the Newseum Institute. Pictured: (Left) Corinne Stremmel – South Dakota. (Right) Emily Baucum – Alabama.

Emily Baucum is the definition of a free spirit. She was a kind-hearted, independent, free-spirited old soul sporting a half-shaved head, and she was the representative from Alabama I met on the second day of the trip. We immediately bonded and spent the bus ride talking, until eventually I brought up the looming question: what type of journalism are you looking to go into? She looked at me and confidently replied: “I want to be a kindergarten teacher.” I looked back pleasantly surprised. I thought I had been the only one unsure of their path in journalism, but she was positive about hers. The voice grew louder.

My confusion in my interest for journalism mounted when I sat down in the exhibit of fallen journalists in the Newseum, surrounded by a wall of names of journalists who had been targeted on the job. My confusion took another turn when I heard Sarah Ganim, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, explore the details of her success and the story of why she loved this field. Through her stories, I felt connected. She loved journalism for the same reasons I do: you get to tell a story. You see a new perspective, and you give a voice to those who don’t feel they have one. I was immersed in self-doubt at this point, but I did know one thing: I was interested.

At the end of the week, nostalgia had already settled in. I never thought I’d cry over a group of people I had met six days ago, but I couldn’t stop the tears. I felt as though I had found my people – we were the Free Spirits of this generation, and in some way, we were all connected. With snow on it’s way, I now long for the the somewhat comforting 90 degree weather of D.C. and to be back with all of these wonderfully talented young journalists. This trip changed my life by introducing my to great people and incredible opportunities. By the last day, my confusion became clear. I was terrified of what my future as a journalist looked like. I was fully aware of the low-paying, demanding field I would be going into, and I was scared, but if I learned anything from this trip, it is that it is okay to be scared. I wanted to pursue journalism, no matter my fear of being unsuccessful, because if Al Neuharth taught me anything, it is to dream. Dare. Do.

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