Dream, Dare, Do: Becoming a Free Spirit


Courtesy of the Freedom Forum Institute

There are 51 scholars, each representing their respective state and the District of Columbia.

Gina Nguyen, Editor-in-Chief

If spending seven days in Washington, D.C. at the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference taught me anything, it’s that surrounding yourself with people who are just as passionate as you are about something can do more than just share ideas. It builds supportive relationships and creates strong connections across the country–quite literally. 

This annual program, created by USA Today founder Al Neuharth and hosted by the Freedom Forum Institute at the Newseum, aims to encourage student journalists entering the 12th grade to pursue a journalism career or major in the future. Each scholar receives an all-expenses paid trip to Washington and a $1,000 scholarship to the college of their choice. 

I met 50 other student journalists, each representing their home state and the District of Columbia and known as Free Spirits. I still find it so incredible. Although not everyone plans to pursue careers in the journalism field, everyone had a passion for storytelling and pursuing the truth through the media. Before this trip, I could list every person I knew with this passion on one hand. Obviously, I couldn’t say the same now.

A little over a year ago, I started to feel that journalism was a path I could pursue, but I faced a lot of criticism and skepticism for it. This conference brought together others like me–a community I never thought I would have–and solidified that this is not an unrealistic goal. 

Coming into the conference, I feared I wouldn’t be as prepared or as knowledgeable or as good a writer as the next person, but after meeting each person and learning about their backgrounds, I easily felt like I belonged. We embraced each others’ unique experiences and gave insight on how to improve each of our own publications. 


But it wasn’t only my peers who inspired me. Each day, we heard from panels to discuss a wide variety of topics: incorporating digital media in the newsroom, preparing for a journalism career, fighting fake news, strengthening college internships, protecting our First Amendment rights and so much more. Each speaker offered new perspective and insight in their respective areas.

While most of the time the speakers came to us, there were several opportunities in which we ventured out. These visits included the NBC News studio, where we watched a live recording of “Meet the Press” and met Chuck Todd, the anchor; the E. Barrett Pettyman United States Courthouse, where I was chosen to defend a case in front of U.S. District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth; the “USA Today” headquarters, where we met with several editors and toured their newsroom; and the United States Capitol, where we toured the House and Senate press galleries. Each of these experiences was unique to itself, but perhaps physically being in each place is what makes me most excited to enter the field. Being hands-on and seeing it for myself shows me just how important the world of journalism and protecting the First Amendment is. 

Almost every speaker told us Free Spirits that the future of journalism is in our hands, that the face of journalism is changing, and our generation will decide its path. It sounds like a lot of pressure, but those words have stuck with me since and have inspired me, in the words of Al Neuharth, to continue to dream, dare and do.