I’ve always been excited for the day I get to go to college, leave the state and live on my own. But, when I found myself alone across the country and in an unknown place, I realized how overly confident and naive I had been.

For months I had been patiently waiting to attend the Washington Journalism and Media Conference, hosted by George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., just a few miles outside of our nation’s capital. However, when I stepped on campus, every expectation fabricated in my young and inexperienced mind was torn apart.

Campus life is no joke. Sharing one bathroom with four people and eating cafeteria food for every meal is an experience in itself. Still, none of this hindered my incredibly enlightening and fun experience at the conference.

The impressive list of speakers I listened to explained their individual paths to success, and all of them shared one thing in common: perseverance. From Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Carol Guzy to Shermichael Singleton, a contributing host for Vox Media and MSNBC, every speaker believed in the power of hard work moving forward when obstacles arise. This type of determination and resiliency, they all echoed, is the most important quality to have if your dream is to be a successful journalist.

As inspiring as every speaker was, the most important lessons I learned were from my environment and the people around me.

Being stuck in an unknown place with no one you know is intimidating, but I’m so grateful it happened to me at this point in my life. Everyone around me was facing the exact same thing, so there was no shortage of friendship opportunities.

I made my friends pretty quickly, and promptly learned how intelligent and deserving of being there they, and every other person at the conference, were. All of the youth correspondents, as they called us, were from different states and cities around the country. Originally, I was anxious about this, but I realized that it made the situation only more diverse — racially, politically and socially.

Some of my close friends — Kara Han from Utah, Emma Conway from Minnesota, Felicia Carlsson from Florida and Joshua Baum from Pennsylvania — came from different environments, but we all had one thing in common: uncertainty for what was to come. By the end of the week, however, that uncertainty dissolved and was replaced with a deep admiration for each other and the conference program.

I went into this totally unsure of myself, but I came out feeling more independent, confident and experienced. And for that I’d like to thank the Washington Journalism and Media Conference, and the incredible opportunity it gave me.

Ivy St. Clair is a junior at Santa Fe High School. Contact her at ivy.ian.st.clair@gmail.com.