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What I learned at summer camp: The importance of a diverse group of friends

Courtesy Newseum Institute
The Free Spirit group, consisting of one student from each state and D.C., listens to advice from 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner David Fahrenthold. Photo courtesy Newseum Institute.

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This was no normal summer camp.

The Al Neuharth Free Spirit Conference at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. this June offered me an incredible look at journalism. We examined the past, present and future of the profession: from the typewriter to Twitter, from the first-ever National Geographic magazine to the hot-off-the-presses USA Today.

I met some of my journalism heroes (allow me to be a news nerd for a moment) – David Fahrenthold, who revealed the Trump Access Hollywood tapes last year, and Martin Baron, of Spotlight fame – in addition to touring newsrooms and receiving practical advice from professionals. I will bring back all of this to the The Cardinal Times newsroom to hopefully better serve all of you.

However, while incredible, these aspects were not the most valuable part of the camp for me.

Instead, most important was what I learned about the people. This conference is unique in that it annually brings together 51 rising seniors, one from each state and D.C. With all expenses paid by the scholarship, it also brings together students of various economic situations. There were Whites, Blacks, Asians, Latinos, gay people and straight people, male and female– a microcosm of the United States like no other I had experienced.

It offered me a chance to connect with people from states and backgrounds I had never met someone from before, and had only understood through rough stereotypes.

But throughout our week at the conference, I felt that I came to understand what life is like in all 51 places. The student from Mississippi was not a gun-toting hick; instead he was a card-game-loving rapper. Nebraska’s representative was not a farmer; she loves to dance to the same music I do. My new friend from Utah goes to a Catholic school, not Mormon. 

Our shared passion for journalism acted as a springboard for the multiple conversations I had with all 51 students at the conference, helping me overcome my preconceptions.

As I watched the solar eclipse this morning, another national coming-together event, I was reminded of the importance of having a diverse group of friends. I messaged my Free Spirit friends and got their perspective on it from all over the country. We have done the same on countless other issues, delving into territories that I previously thought were too dangerous to talk about with people from unfamiliar places: identity, politics, religion.

In this divisive time in our nation, the importance of this cannot be understated.

When our new school year begins next week, I challenge all of you to work on diversifying your friend group. Sure, Lincoln may not have the heterogeneity of the Free Spirit Conference, but each year we have new students and exchange students from all over the world. Further, there may be students who you’ve avoided for years because of perceived differences. Talk to them and you’ll soon come to realize that having dissimilarity makes a friendship much more interesting– and valuable.

We all know that Lincoln is lacking in diversity. But that just means we need to work a little harder.

You won’t regret it.

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