Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference


Caylee Caldwell, Editor In Chief

I was late. I was not just slightly late, but I was very, very late. It wasn’t as if I was trying to be, but the plane was delayed and so were the bags. Nothing was going right and to top it all off, it was my first time flying alone.

Luckily enough for me, I wasn’t the only tardy one and I later learned that these other people became some of the best friends I’ll ever have.


Arriving at the 2019 Al Neuharth Free Spirit Conference and walking into the conference hall still with all of our bags and 92 pairs of Free Spirit eyes on us wasn’t the way I had expected to start this amazing experience. In all honesty, it made me worry that I wouldn’t fit in, that, somehow all of those other students had made some unbreakable connection within that one hour.


I was dead wrong, and, again, I would learn later what it really meant to fit in.


The annual Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference program is for high school seniors who are interested in pursuing a career in journalism. It is for free-spirited students with a thirst to know more. Each year, students apply from high schools all over the United States, and one from each of those states is chosen as a representative to travel to Washington, D.C. and participate in an all-expenses-paid journalism conference. Along with the knowledge they gain, they are also awarded a $1,000 college scholarship. This program was created by the Freedom Forum Institute to honor Al Neuharth, the founder of USA TodayNewseum and the Freedom Forum.

There were so many expectations I had once I found out I was chosen to represent Utah at this amazing conference. I was excited, first of all, which had been expected, but I was also scared. I’d never flown on a plane alone and I have never had an easy time making friends. Writing is one of the ways I always escaped or communicated when I needed to, but I was going all the way to DC with 50 other people who I had never met. What if they didn’t like me? I would have to be there with them for a whole week!

After the original fiasco with the late plane, I found that it wasn’t hard to connect with people at a conference where everyone was interested in the same things as me and just as scared as I was.

There were multiple experiences that brought all of us closer together. From day one, with a very early start, we were off to the Freedom Forum Institute to meet with journalists from all around to teach us about the use of social media, online and print, and the use of modern technology in the news. We heard from civil rights activists, Chuck Todd from NBC, and previous Free Spirits. There was not a moment we weren’t soaking in the knowledge. When we weren’t at talks, we were traveling around DC in a giant tour bus, seeing the Capitol, the theatre where Lincoln was shot, memorials, and even USA Today. Most nights, we weren’t back until after 11:00, tired and content.

Curiosity is the key to a free spirit and we were never bored.

However, despite the inspirational talks and presentations, there were moments with all my new friends that will never leave me. I was there to learn all I could, but it was the Voss water bottles and cups upon cups of hotel coffee that made me realize what was most important. It was shoulders to sleep on at the end of the day and friends sharing hot chocolate mix past midnight when we weren’t supposed to. It was people. It was Arizona, New Mexico, Montana, and every other person from every state in the country that will forever stick with me no matter where I go.

I have a friend in every state. How many people can say that? Without the Free Spirit conference, I wouldn’t be a part of such an amazing community of rising, talented, journalists.

More than just learning about journalism and voice, I learned that you can’t be afraid. When you do what you love, you will find your people.