Becoming a Free Spirit

This June, BHS junior Mackenzie Swenson will represent the state as a part of the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference.


Mackenzie Swenson

Understanding success. Sometimes, BHS junior Mackenzie Swenson can feel like she is not deserving of praise when it is compared to someone else’s success. However, winning the Free Spirit award made her realize how skilled she must be at journalism since only one person per state can win. “I don’t mean to imply that being a Free Spirit scholar makes me feel superior, but it has lightened the load of years of self-doubt,” Swenson said.

Connor Fogarty, News/Feature editor

As a high school journalist, it is not often one gets individually recognized on the national level. However, this recognition has been given to BHS junior Mackenzie Swenson, who has received the Al Neuharth Free Spirit Award.

Swenson has been writing for the HiHerald for the last two school years, and in doing so, she has found great interest in journalism and the various topics it can cover.

“Joining the HiHerald staff in my sophomore year was truly an eye-opening experience,” Swenson said. “It introduced me to a career that combines high levels of writing skill with one’s hobbies and interests.”

Throughout her time of writing for the paper, she has been able to interview various people across the school and the city, getting as in-depth as she can in her stories.

“We have received a lot of strong positive feedback from people she has interviewed for the school newspaper,” her father Mark Swenson said. “They are impressed with her well-thought-out questions, enthusiasm for the people and subject and smooth segways in the interview.”

This desire to absorb information may have sprouted from the joy Mackenzie found in reading and writing when she was younger. Her motivation and enthusiasm pushed her to take journalism I in eighth grade before joining the HiHerald team two years later. 

“At a young age, she loved reading books and magazines that were sophisticated and generally well beyond what a ‘normal kid’ her age would read,” Mark said.

Mackenzie enjoyed being a part of journalism at BHS, so when she was informed about the Al Neuharth Free Spirit Award, she felt inclined to apply. She was also told by BHS HiHerald adviser Ann McKenzie that former HiHerald staff member Alexis Kerzman had won the award as well.

“A scholarship that is awarded to one person per state sounded quite prestigious, but I figured that if a BHS student was selected in the past, it was not impossible for me to win,” Mackenzie said.

The award itself would normally entail a $1000 scholarship along with an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C. for a conference with other journalism students from across the country. 

“I have very little exposure to the world of journalism outside of high school and local publications, so I hope that the conference will make me more familiar with the field,” Mackenzie said.

In addition, winning the award would help Mackenzie to differentiate herself from other college applicants.

“‘Recipient of the Al Neuharth Free Spirit Journalism Award’ sounds like a wonderful phrase to add to a college application,” Mackenzie said.

When applying for the award, Mackenzie had to submit her high school transcripts, give information on her volunteer work and extracurricular activities, give two letters of recommendation, submit three of her journalistic works and write two essays relating to her interest in journalism and what being a free spirit means to her.

“Neither [the stories nor the essays] were laborious because I enjoy writing stories and essays, but a great deal of time and effort went into them nonetheless,” Mackenzie said.

After submitting in February, Mackenzie waited three months before being emailed the results. Although she originally skimmed over the email among the several others she usually gets each day, upon reading it, she found out that she had won the award and would represent North Dakota at the conference.

“It took about a minute for the information to sink in, and then I just felt elated. My mom was really excited, too,” Mackenzie said. “I was on cloud nine for the next week, and I still get chills when I think too hard about it.”

Her parents were glad to see her succeed, as they have seen her grow and dedicate herself not only to her academics but as a person as well.

“Because of her discipline and love of academics, Mackenzie has always been successful at everything she’s done,” Mark said. “We are proud of her academic success, but more so that she is also humble and kind.”

This award is named after USA Today founder Al Neuharth, who also started various organizations that promote the First Amendment. The conference is meant to inspire students to take part in journalism and give more focus on the amendment in democracy. To prepare for the conference, Mackenzie has been given a copy of USA Today from 2013 featuring Neuharth’s final column – along with two books that were written by him.

“Apparently, I am supposed to read both of these books before the conference – all approximately 450 pages of them,” Mackenzie said.

Mackenzie is not sure what to expect from this conference as not much is entirely certain as far as what will happen. She does know that there will be workshops as well as the opportunity to connect with other students who have won the award as well. In years past, the students were able to fly out to Washington, D.C. for the conference, but due to COVID-19, the conference will be held digitally instead.

“I am definitely disappointed that I will no longer be traveling to Washington, D.C. and meeting teen journalists from around the nation in person, but I am still grateful for the opportunity to participate in the virtual conference,” Mackenzie said.

When Mackenzie goes to college, she hopes to focus specifically on scientific journalism. Though she is inclined to look into other topics she is interested in, she has always been fascinated by what unravels in the world of science.

“It is not uncommon for a journalist to report solely on topics that they have interest in,” Mackenzie said. “My desire is to make [new scientific innovations] more accessible so that people can have more informed opinions regarding scientific topics.”

Of course, no matter what she ends up doing with her life, Mackenzie is comforted through the support of those around her.

“It is so nice to know that no matter where my journalism journey takes me, I will always have a supportive community at BHS and in the wider Bismarck area,” Mackenzie said.

Overall, Mackenzie is grateful for finding her passion in journalism and for receiving this award. Because of it, she has a new-found confidence in herself – one that she hopes to carry with her throughout her life.

“For a long time I have been unconvinced of my ability to achieve anything significant in my future, whether it involves my career or my personal life, but being named North Dakota’s singular representative at the Free Spirit Conference gives me more assurance that I can – and will –  accomplish my goals,” Mackenzie said.