Ketchikan High School senior Leah Call was the sole Alaska student selected for the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference scholarship program in Washington, D.C., which took place in June this year.
Call said, in an interview at Kayhi, that although she’d loved writing for a long time, journalism wasn’t something she had much knowledge of before her involvement with the program.
“At first, I was kind of nervous about it,” she said. “I wasn’t really sure what it was. I knew that I liked journalism, so I did it. I just went for it, and I didn’t think I would get it.”
She said that Kayhi counselor Bob McClory had heard she might be interested in the program, and encouraged her to apply. She had completed an Advanced Placement English class that year.
To apply for the scholarship, Call wrote essays, gathered letters of recommendation, submitted a resume and completed application forms.
The journalism conference is an all-expenses paid program that, according to information at freedomforuminstitute.org, targets high school seniors who are interested in pursuing a journalism career in addition to demonstrating qualities of “free spirit.”
In addition to receiving funding for the program and travel expenses, each program participant is awarded a $1,000 college scholarship.
The program was started in 1999 to honor Al Neuharth, the founder of USA Today, the Newseum where program classes are held, and also the Freedom Forum, which was founded to advocate for First Amendment freedoms.
The program spanned five weekdays, Call said. Each day, participants from every state attended seminars and classes at the Newseum building on Pennsylvania Avenue.
When asked why she thought she was chosen over the other few Alaska applicants, Call guessed, “I’m not sure. Maybe because I’ve never done anything like it before. Maybe it was kind of interesting for them, to have a newcomer.”
She added that she when first started the program, she was a bit unsure, “because I was already kind of behind, so I was worried going in that I wouldn’t know everything. I felt kind of out of my element.”
Call said the classes and seminars they attended gave her a new look at journalism.
“We learned about different types of journalism,” she said. “We had a Pulitzer prize-winning photojournalist come talk to us, which was really cool.”
What surprised her was “just how broad journalism is, I guess. I just figured it was like, people wrote news and then that was it. But, there’s a lot of different types and a lot of different ways to get involved in it, which was interesting to me.”
Call said that when it was her turn to stand in front of her fellow students and explain why journalism was important to her, she related an experience from her fourth-grade year in school. She said that for an assignment, she’d reported on the reduced lunch prices at her school, and that had ignited her love of writing, “in any form.”
Call said her favorite part of the program was “hearing all these other people’s stories and how they got into journalism and just what they write about … different beats and stuff.”
She said the program also sparked a new interest in a different area of journalism.
“I really like traditional newspaper, but I also like broadcasting,” she said. “We actually had the opportunity to go watch Chuck Todd do a live taping there, which was really cool. I never really thought about what goes on in a newsroom behind the scenes like that.”
Another lesson that still is vivid in Call’s mind was shared by a photojournalist who taught at one of the program’s classes.
“We have to look behind the photo and see what’s going on,” she said he told them. “Not just in the photo, but what might be going on around it to get more perspective.”
That taught her that when reporting on any event, a journalist must be sensitive to the context, to all of the details surrounding that event.
Many of the classes, Call said, were structured as a panel of journalism professionals whom the students could question. Those afternoon sessions, or “devotionals” were attended by journalists from such institutions as CBS News, the New York Times and USA Today.
There even were two people in a panel who had participated in the Freedom Rides of 1961, “which was really interesting,” Call said.
Many of the classes offered a chance for students to split into smaller groups to discuss issues and topics. In one class, students were given an article then tasked with writing a new opening sentence, or lede.
In addition to attending classes, seminars and events such as the Todd taping during the day, Call said she and her fellow students toured many Washington D.C. institutions, such as several Smithsonian museums and the National Archives.
The program culminated in a big gala at the end of the week, Call said. Every year, the organization gives the Al Neuharth Award for Excellence in the Media at that event. Past awardees have included Walter Cronkite, Charles Kuralt and Cokie Roberts. The 2019 recipient was Carol Guzy, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist.
Also at the galas are alumni of the Neuharth scholarship program who have moved into journalism careers.
“We got to meet them and ask them questions about how to stay connected to the scholarship,” Call said.
Call shared what she felt were the most valuable experiences she had as a participant.
“I met a lot of cool people. I learned a lot. I think just taking everything in and learning everything I could about it” she said.
When she was ready to start her final year at Kayhi, she was eager to sign up for teacher Jeff Lund’s journalism class.
At present she’s working to finish up an article on the election of a new secretary for the Kayhi Pep Club.
As she’s been working on the Kayhi newspaper, she said the lessons she learned in the Neuharth program have inspired her.
“It just sort of changed the way I view things,” she said, “like, ‘Is this newsworthy? Is that something I could write about?’”
She said her biggest strength as a writer is “just knowing what to say and how to say it. I think I have a nice flow when it comes to writing.”
She said she now is researching colleges with strong writing programs with the goal of a career in journalism.
She said of the program, “it was probably a catalyst. I knew I wanted to do something involving writing after high school. I just always loved it — all the different kinds, but this conference sort of hit what I really wanted to do after.”
If another student was considering applying for the scholarship program, Call said, “They should just definitely go for it. If they have no experience or a lot of experience. It was really eye opening and I had a lot of fun.”