BRATTLEBORO—An aspiring young writer from Brattleboro is having an extraordinary summer pursuing her dream.
Olivia Howe, who will be a senior this fall at Brattleboro Union High School, was one of 51 high school student-journalists selected to attend the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference at the Newseum Institute in Washington, D.C.
The conference, which took place from June 17 to 22, bills itself as “an annual academic and scholarship program designed to inspire some of the nation’s best and brightest students to pursue journalism and media careers.” It picks a student from each state.
“I was probably the least aspiring journalist there,” said Howe, who said she has done some work on the monthly BUHS student paper, The Beacon. “I applied mainly because I wanted to learn more about nonfiction writing. I came away wanting to know even more about journalism.”
Established in 1999 to honor Al Neuharth, the founder of USA Today, the Newseum, and the Freedom Forum, selection to the Free Spirit conference came with an all-expenses paid trip to Washington and a $1,000 college scholarship.
Getting selected to this conference, plus the national-level Gold Medal for novel writing that she won earlier this year in the 2017 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, would seem like enough honors and experiences for one year.
Except that, right now, Howe is in Iowa City, Iowa, taking part in Between the Lines, a creative writing and cultural exchange program for promising young writers.
Howe was one of 36 writers chosen for this summer’s session, which runs from July 1 to 15.
BTL brings young writers from nine Arabic-speaking countries and territories, 11 U.S. states, and four cities across the Russian Federation to Iowa City, home of the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
During the two-week program, Howe will participate in intensive writing workshops and seminars. She will also attend literary events, and will have an opportunity to give a public reading of her work.
“I’m most looking forward to meeting teenagers from Russia and the Arabic-speaking world who share my interest in creative writing,” Howe said, “as well as learning as much as possible about technique and how I can improve my own writing.”
But, for Howe, there was as much cultural exchange going on in Washington as there is now going on in Iowa City.
“It’s always hard to describe Vermont, especially Brattleboro, to people from other parts of the country,” Howe said. “Even after Bernie Sanders’s campaign.”
What surprised her was how many of her fellow conference attendees were concerned about journalism’s steady migration from the printed word to digital media, and how difficult it is to focus on just writing when young reporters are now expected to make videos and engage readers on social media while still writing multiple stories a day.
“The journalists we spoke to were fairly optimistic about the direction that journalism is headed in,” Howe said. “But they made it clear that social media is changing the way that they do their jobs.”
And, as they learned about the history of the First Amendment and how freedom of speech, thought, and expression has not always been honored, Howe said that they learned that divisiveness and contentiousness is nothing new on the U.S. political scene.
“It’s always been there,” she said. “But, as much as people complain,we’ve got it pretty good in this country when it comes to free speech compared to other places.”
She said the days were long at the Free Spirit conference and were filled with lots of lectures and Q&A sessions. There were also trips to the U.S. Capitol, the headquarters of USA Today in Virginia, and the Washington bureau of NBC News.
The power of words
Howe said she is looking forward to a busy senior year at BUHS. She said she has narrowed down her college choices to Swarthmore, Wesleyan University, and Bryn Mawr “because they all have good writing programs.”
She has already seen where writing can take her.
As a seventh-grader in 2013, she won a national silver medal in novel writing in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. She was the youngest prize winner that year.
In 2015, she won two gold keys, three silver keys, and seven honorable mentions for her poetry and short stories in the regional Scholastic contest, and won another silver medal in the national contest.
Thanks to the Scholastic contests, she’s already made two trips to Carnegie Hall in New York — one in 2016 to collect an American Voices Medal for poetry, and a trip in June to pick up the gold medal she won this year.
And she’s been to Washington, and she’s now in the Midwest in the midst of an international writing exchange with her global peers.
She says she hopes to put all these experiences together at college, studying language and linguistics with an eye toward a possible career as an interpreter or translator.