Solidifying a passion

Konopelko reflects on Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference


Photo by: Freedom Forum Institute

Senior Nicole Konopelko shares her thoughts on student journalism at the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference. 51 student journalists are selected to represent their state in the all-expenses paid journalism conference. This year, Konopelko represented Kansas.

Story by Nicole Konopelko, Managing Editor

158 days. Three months. Three articles.

In journalism time, that’s how long it’s been since I embraced 50 passionate, talented student journalists in Washington, D.C., one-by-one, as tears welled up in my eyes.

Tears for the future of journalism. Tears for how much my life had changed in three days. Tears for how certain I was that journalism was my career path.

Though it’s been so long, not a day goes by that I don’t think about my time at the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference last summer.

Each year, the Freedom Forum selects 51 student journalists, who are rising high school seniors, to represent their state in this all-expenses paid journalism conference at the Newseum. This program was established in 1999 to honor the legacy of Al Neuharth, founder of USA Today, the Newseum and the Freedom Forum.

This year, I was selected as the state representative of Kansas.

During my four days at the conference, I was 100 percent immersed in journalism. I toured the headquarters of USA Today and watched an interview between Kellyanne Conway and Chuck Todd, on his show, Meet The Press. I heard from numerous successful journalists on a daily basis, including David Fahrenthold, a Washington Post reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of President Donald J. Trump’s campaign, and Sara Ganim, a CNN reporter who also won a Pulitzer Prize for breaking the story of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

Before I boarded my plane to D.C., I knew I was passionate about journalism, but I wasn’t exactly sure if it was the career choice for me. People around me were discouraging me from going into the field because of the low salary and the Trump administration’s treatment of the press.

But when I boarded my plane back to Kansas City, I was certain that I wanted to pursue journalism. Every journalist that I heard from had a successful career. One of the speakers, Mary Pilon — a Free Spirit conference alumna — had just published her book, The Kevin Show; a true story of an Olympic Athlete’s battle with mental illness. Another one, Doug Mills, spoke with us about his 16 years of working in the Washington bureau of the New York Times.

However, there was more to these journalists than just their work. Every single one of them had a passion for their craft. They loved their jobs and that’s why they were so good at them. Hearing them speak reaffirmed that I want to continue telling stories for the rest of my life.

The journalists at the conference also reminded me that regardless of the current administration’s attacks on the press or the normalization of  “fake news,” real journalism does exist, and it matters now more than it ever has before.

In addition, I was inspired by the future of journalism — more specifically, the 50 student journalists who attended the conference alongside me.

I hold journalism near and dear to my heart. It’s my passion, and I’ve shifted my schedule around entirely this year so that I could have time to pour my heart into it.

The other students at the conference all made a difference with their words in some capacity, and were just as passionate as I was. We fed off of each other’s energy and shared so many thoughts with each other.

Attending the Free Spirit Conference also opened a door of hundreds of valuable connections, including both past alum and my own Free Spirit class.

In fact, one of my friends from the conference was the first person to tell me that I was nominated for three of the National Scholastic Press Association’s individual awards, and as soon as she did, our group chat blew up with compliments and supportive comments for me and the other free spirits who were nominated. Plus, we all cheered extra loud for each other at the Nov. 1-4 NSPA Convention in Chicago, when our names filled the awards screen.   

My four days at the Free Spirit conference solidified my commitment to journalism and inspired me to bring back that same passion I found in Washington to my own staff.

If you are a junior, and you’d like to experience this trip for yourself, click here to apply.