Student 51: how a journalism conference taught me the importance of DC statehood


Courtesy of the Freedom Forum Institute

Hannah Masling

As 50 other high school juniors boarded planes, trains, and buses, I sat at home wondering what the next week had in store. Would it be strange to attend a journalism conference in my own city? Would I get agitated with other students’ lack of knowledge about DC? Would I be utterly bored during the scheduled tours of monuments I had visited dozens of times before?

During the summer of 2019, I attended the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference, most of which happened to take place in my own backyard of downtown DC. One student journalist had been selected from every state in the country, and I, of course, was the representative from DC. 

Though I learned invaluable reporting, social media, and career skills, as well as made a few close friends with whom I still talk to, what I really took away from the conference was how crucial the fight for DC statehood is. Let me explain.

The word “state” must have been uttered 1,000 times throughout the conference. Questions like, “What state are you representing?”, “Can you give a fun fact about your state?”, and “Who can find their state’s newspaper on the wall?” were thrown out repeatedly. As I heard the word more and more, I began to feel isolated from the 50 students around me. 

It must have been during the second or third day of the conference that I first brought up DC statehood to my now closely bonded peers. To my disappointment, only one person had even heard of the movement. To my further disappointment, a student asked, “Isn’t DC a city in Virginia?” More frustration accumulated within me as student after student gushed about how excited they were to attend their state school, often noting how cheap their tuition will be. 

With my newly ignited awareness of DC statehood’s significance, I urged the other conference attendees to research the issue and discuss it with their peers at home. To my surprise, my constant reminders about the unfairness of DC’s lack of meaningful representation in Congress actually resonated with some students. In August, one of the closest friends I gained, who represented the state of New York, was so moved by what I had ranted to her about that she published an opinion piece for her town’s newspaper on why DC deserves statehood. One month prior, another friend of mine texted excitedly in our conference group chat when Pete Buttigeg became the first Democratic presidential candidate to advocate for DC statehood.  

 I feel incredibly lucky to have gotten the opportunity to learn from renowned journalists and editors during the conference, but I knew well before attending that I would get to meet such accomplished people. What I didn’t know before the conference was how being the 51st student—the only one not from a state—would spark a dedication to DC statehood that I’d never before had.