2013 Vermont representative Basundhara Mukherjee, a senior at South Burlington (Vermont) High School, shared her experience in a Nov. 2013 article published on her high school’s online publication.
Dream. Dare. Do. Al Neuharth, the founder of USA Today, used these three words to symbolize his life philosophy. More importantly, these three words symbolize the Al Neuharth Free Spirit & Journalism Conference, which I attended as the Vermont representative in Washington D.C. this past July.
Al Neuharth first established the Free Spirit Conference in 1999 to bring together diverse and passionate high school journalists from around the nation, and to emphasize the role of the First Amendment in journalism. The fifty-one students at the conference, hailing from the fifty states and the District of Columbia, were selected for their journalistic achievements, their immense passion for the field, and, most importantly, their free-spiritedness.
Centered in D.C.’s Newseum, an interactive museum also established by Neuharth outlining the history of journalism, the Free Spirit Conference consisted of series of talks by professional journalists, all of whom told riveting stories about their journalistic experiences: PBS’s Judy Woodruff, TIME’s Zeke Miller, former Press Secretary to President Ford Ron Nessen, Pulitzer Prize winner Sara Ganim, to name a few. Even more, we had the opportunity to interact with extraordinary individuals in Q&A sessions, from Freedom Rider Dr. Rip Patton to NASA Astronaut Thomas Marshburn, who conducted his session while commentating on a live space walk.
At one point, Dr. Thomas Marshburn quoted, “Adventure is essential for survival,” a phrase applicable to the five days I spent in D.C., mostly attributed to the group of students who attended the conference. Besides sitting in on a live taping of Meet the Press with David Gregory or savoring the array of food catered by the legendary Wolfgang Puck, we were learning from, teaching, and inspiring each other. Upon arriving at the conference, I instantly connected to the other students, sharing a love of telling stories and a passion for the world. Many of them taught me the skills it takes to be a leader—the group of students consisted primarily of editors-in-chiefs—and offered ideas to carry with me for my own journalistic pursuits. Even now, Free Spirits (a term we call ourselves) post in the Free Spirit Facebook group at least once a day, sharing ideas, stories, and accomplishments.
However, the most valuable aspect of the conference was none other than the famous Al Neuharth, who opened our eyes to the infinite opportunities of the world. Al Neuharth unfortunately passed away this April, but left his legacy for the future of journalism. Fortunately for us, his daughter and her two kids joined us during the conference to share his principles and memories.
In one of his most famous quotes, Al Neuharth stated, “Think big. Big dreams. Big risks. Big rewards.” He was defined by these quotes—coined “Al Neuharth’s Plain Talk” by his family. But more importantly, he was defined by his free spirit, which consequently led him to start USA Today, the Freedom Forum, and the Newseum. Albeit growing up in adverse conditions, he was driven by passion and determination, two ideals we carried forward even after the conference.
Overall, Al Neuharth’s conference was both enlightening and humbling; it put the world into a new perspective. After the conference, I remembered once again why I love journalism—the myriad surprises, refreshing people, unrelenting opportunities,
And we, this generation of Free Spirits, are the future of the field.