When Free Spirits Come Together

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Maria Bryk/Newseum

Maria Bryk/Newseum

I walked into journalism class on Monday morning still groggy from the weekend but before even a “Good morning,” my journalism advisor threw an idea in my face. She told me she had accidentally come across the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference and that I HAVE to apply. She shared that she couldn’t visualize anyone else attending and if I didn’t try she would be upset. I went home that day and spoke to my mom about it, she agreed that I should apply but, as we did further research, I realized only one student per a state gets picked so I figured I would never get in. However, I applied anyway because I knew I would regret not trying and I want to graduate high school with little regret. It was a tedious process, the application required two essays on why I am a free spirit and why I want to pursue a career in journalism. However, while the essays were challenging, they led to realizations and personal growth. Answering the questions I would never have asked made me more confident and provided me with a sense of duty to continue to be a friendly, enthusiastic person, as well as give people a voice. The essays were my first awakening.

After tedious amounts of work, my application was finally completed. All I had left to do was wait. I wasn’t nervous; I didn’t need to get in, I didn’t expect to get in, and I thought if I didn’t get in I had nothing to lose. I was in my AP Comp class doing some quiet reading when I got the email. I jumped out of my desk and I could not stop smiling. I had gotten in! I immediately told my mom and journalism teacher. They were both as shocked as I was. My journalism teacher came across the conference and scholarship information by mistake; no one expected I would actually do something with it. And then, not only did I apply, but I found out I would be representing the State of New Jersey at a journalism conference for free spirits in an all expenses paid trip to D.C.! The moment was surreal.

After my acceptance, time went by as I anxiously awaited my departure. I had to take all of my 4th quarterlies early, as the conference fell before the conclusion of the school year. Finally, it was time for me to ditch West Orange and tackle the intricacies of journalism. All I kept thinking on the train ride to D.C. was how excited and nervous I was to meet new people. It is truly a once in a lifetime experience to get to meet one student from each state that you have at least one thing in common with. When it was my stop, I hopped off and immediately started a conversation with Delaware and Connecticut. Because there was one kid from each state, a lot of times we’d refer to each other by our states. It was interesting to answer to “Jersey” for a week. The car ride to the hotel never had a quiet moment. Delaware, Connecticut, and Jersey hit it off immediately. That’s what opened my eyes. I realized there was no point in hiding who I am, no point in being shy because everyone there was a free spirit like me. We all didn’t just identify as journalists, but also as outgoing, fun-loving people.

When we entered the hotel a lot of people were already there, but what was amazing was nobody had formed a click. That entire trip, nobody formed a click; everyone was inclusive and talking to people and just enjoying the company. Throughout the conference, I learned something new from each student-journalist. Whether it be something small like how the double-sided arrows you see on highways work or something major like the rights of a student journalist, every free spirit had something to share. I learned a lot from the guest speakers at the conference, but I learned the most important lesson from all of the free spirits. They taught me that it is never okay to not be yourself and that the people you want to be around, the people who matter in your life, are the ones that accept all aspects of who you are. I realized after the trip that had I not gotten accepted, I had everything to lose: lifelong friendships, a new perspective, and an invaluable experience.

I used a phrase at the conference, “chillin and grillin” as a description of what we were doing. An awkward, unknown description that I probably couldn’t define. However, it eventually spread and a majority of the free spirits on the trip started using it. The phrase became more than just a description. For me, it became a symbol of connection and acceptance. It showed me that, yeah, we were from all over the country, yeah, we had varying opinions and personal values, yeah, we were all different, yet we all became friends, we all got along, we all found common ground: not just journalism, but our ability to value the beauty in others.

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