2013 Nebraska representative Emily Beck, a senior at Omaha (Nebraska) Central High School, shared her experience in a November 6, 2013 article published in her high school’s newspaper, The Register.
Al Neuharth, founder of USA TODAY, was a walking oxymoron—a success, a failure, a family man, a scoundrel, a shark—but to me he is an inspiration. He was an innovator who was made of Teflon; he lived for criticism, never allowing anyone to bother him. He saw that life was a game, and he wasn’t afraid to play it. This is how I aspire to be.
I was not fortunate enough to meet this man, who passed away last April after 89 plentiful years. But I’ve been altered by his wisdom and his life.
The man came from “the wrong side of the tracks” of a small South Dakota town, but was destined to make waves with his success. He lived a true American Dream, and made it possible for me to experience my own week-long dream.
Al Neuharth, founder of the Freedom Forum and the Newseum, began the Free Spirit and Journalism Conference in 1999. This provides one student from each state and the District of Columbia the opportunity to embark on all-expenses paid trip to Washington, D.C. for a five-day conference.
I was fortunate enough to be the chosen representative from Nebraska (the first from OPS) and spent July 13-18 experiencing an absolute adventure.
Surrounded by all of those impressive young people, I was never more proud to be a journalist. So many adults question the worth and intelligence of our generation (I’ve possessed my share of doubt), but after my experience in D.C., my views changed.
The week was a flurry of seminars, debates, tours, group photos, advice, new friendships and growth. We challenged one another and introduced each other to our own perspectives and ways of life. I learned that flip-flops are called “slippers” in Hawaii, and that practically no other states have Village Inn. I will always remember standing in the hotel dining room amongst my fellow free spirits as we watched the ruling of the George Zimmerman trial together. The anger and indignance we shared made me proud—we were united and we cared about our world. This is often uncommon for a group of young people. Then again, free spirits are anything but common.
D.C. was our stomping ground, thanks to the Freedom Forum, the Newseum and the late Al Neuharth. We sat up straight during taping in the “Meet the Press” television studio, passionately proclaimed our First Amendment beliefs to one another, explored the six engaging floors of the Newseum, sat under a live spacewalk occurring above us on a jumbo screen, had the time of our lives on a Potomac River cruise, battled the humidity and mosquitoes during nighttime monument tours, belted out John Mayer songs during bus rides, drank cupful after cupful of coffee and tweeted about it all constantly. I still question whether that life-changing week actually happened or not.
We had the opportunity to hear former Freedom Rider Dr. Ernest (Rip) Patton and civil rights champion John Seigenthaler speak, as well as CNN reporter Sara Ganim, winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for news reporting (the woman who uncovered the Sandusky scandal). Also gracing our presence and wholeheartedly answering our many questions were technological whiz Val Hoeppner, PBS anchorwoman Judy Woodruff, Ron Nessen, former White House Press Secretary to President Gerald Ford, U.S. District Court Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth and many others.
The Free Spirit program changed me. It has given me new friends who share my passion, hope for the future and confidence in my own still-developing skills.
I never really thought of myself as a free spirit before this experience. Now, however, I have been inspired to embody my own definition of the term: free spirits leap over bounds which do not faze them, reject mediocrity and corruptness and possess an uncommon ache to do what has never before been done.