Students-turned-Staff: Stories of Impact

Julia Payne · December 4, 2019

The end of the year often signals a time of reflection and reconnecting with the reasons behind why we do what we do. As many of the team members at CharacterStrong are past students, we asked each of them to reflect on their experiences growing up in the work. The following stories give a glimpse into what it felt like to be a part of the community where this curriculum got its start and how it has driven them to stay involved. 



2012 Grad ~

“I usually find it hard to describe what my high school experience was like to other people. I think some peoples’ reactions to their time in high school is either one of embarrassment or having deep-seated adolescent angst in hating it. I’ve never had that reaction. Of course, there were times when I didn’t enjoy it, but I liked my high school. In reality, it was the same as most other schools. We did big activities. We had assemblies, fundraisers, and went to basketball and football games. We had problems like any other school. The typical teenage drama still happened. The students were completely overloaded with the stress of everything going on in their lives, just like anywhere else. Yet, there was something different. 

There was this underlying energy that made us feel welcome and more connected to each other than you would find in other high schools. I took John’s principles of leadership and core leadership classes and quickly learned that the support and togetherness that was happening was very intentional. In class, we focused on that with the intensity of an athlete training for the Olympics. We would say our actions were like weights, working out our character muscles. We spent an hour each day investigating how we could strengthen skills such as kindness and humility. It’s hard to describe it to people who haven’t experienced it, but I can tell you it worked. We were involved, but more importantly, we were connected. Yes, it is fun to have a full student section at a football game, but it’s more fun as a freshman to be asked by upperclassmen to help lead silly cheers in the first row together. I don’t think cleaning up garbage tops the list of fun things to do on a Friday night for anyone, but I can tell you it’s fun when you make a competition out of who can make the most baskets into the garbage can while cleaning the bleachers, so your custodians feel appreciated. I witnessed kids go from being shy freshmen to becoming people who wake up at 5 am every day to greet every student at the door, regardless of whether the students walking in welcomed them back with smiles and high fives, or just brushed them off that day. We were taught to respond to such reactions with empathy and recognize that maybe it was a symptom of something deeper going on that we didn’t know about. There is resilience in that, that I don’t think you usually learn in high school.

I got to walk into the world after high school feeling confident that people want to do good and that doing good is sometimes really hard, but that it is okay because we can work at it. That’s extremely empowering to learn, and it’s given me the grit to get through some of the roughest times of my life. I recently got to attend my first educator training since joining CharacterStrong, and it was so energizing to see people learning about this work as adults and watching them have that paradigm shift has been so fascinating. I knew society needed this kind of work because I could see the need in my own community, but I didn’t realize how badly people crave this kind of connectedness and intentionality. It reminded me that we all want these things and need them. I’m grateful to work with a group that passionately believes in educating students on the same social-emotional skills. I’m thankful to get to work with a group of people who know building relationships through all the little things that we tend to brush off can really change the culture around us and make the world a place we all want to be versus have to be. I still struggle to explain to people what exactly we do because it seems so basic and sometimes flowery or soft, but I can say with certainty that it is tough work and that the relationships are worth it.” 


2013 Grad

“I always wanted to be kind, but I did not always have the tools. When I was in middle and high school, I remember feeling so overwhelmed by the pressure to fit in with my classmates, to get good grades, and to find my place in the world. My school taught me to be a really good student, but I did not know how to show up as a patient sister, a kind friend, an honest daughter, a respectful student, or a humble classmate. Then I transferred to a school that was implementing the education that would one day become CharacterStrong. At my new high school, I learned how to be a good student and how to be an intentional person. This has fundamentally changed the way I show up in my relationships and in my community. 

I remember how revolutionary the idea of putting character into action at home seemed when I first received a dare as a student to do a chore without being asked or looking for recognition. I had never even considered going out of my way to do something for my mom without expecting anything in return. This was a huge paradigm shift for me. I could do kind things for others in a non-transactional way, and
it felt good! I was challenged to think beyond myself to how I show up for others. The CharacterDares gave me tangible, practical ways to practice my character on a daily basis with my peers, my teachers, my family, and my community. The CharacterStrong curriculum gave me the context as to why it was so important to be intentional about my character and relationships. I always wanted to be kind, and CharacterStrong gave me those tools. 

I know without a doubt that this curriculum has changed my life for the better. I have had the incredible gift of learning from both the co-founders of CharacterStrong when I was a student and now again as part of the CS team. We get to continually push our character to new depths as a team while doing the incredibly meaningful work of getting the tools that changed our lives into your hands. I am beyond grateful for the opportunity to support educators that make high-level impact with students on a daily basis. I know firsthand that this is life-changing work. There is nothing I would rather be doing than giving more students the tools to develop their own character!” 


2015 Grad ~

“The moment I stepped onto Sumner High School’s campus in 2011 I could tell there was something different. The amount of positive energy, high-fives and smiles from everyone on campus made me feel less stressed about it being the “first day of high school” and more excited about how awesome the upperclassmen and staff were! I quickly learned how and why Sumner had this culture. It was because of John Norlin. Needless to say, over the next 4 years of my life, I was given so many unique opportunities to develop my character through the leadership classes and the CharacterStrong materials. It wasn’t always easy, but I learned so much during the good times and the challenging times. The tools helped shape my day to day decisions, as well as, bigger life decisions I continue to make. The impact CharacterStrong has had on my life is immeasurable.

Fast forward 4 years, I have graduated from college, and I’m now working for CharacterStrong. I believe every kid should have the opportunity to experience what I went through in high school and because I truly believe in character development, I look at every day as an opportunity to help spread this amazing work to others. Just knowing that on a daily basis, kids are being taught character development drives me to work harder. At CharacterStrong, we talk about the impact we can make on one educator and they in turn can impact a limitless number of students throughout their time in the classroom. It’s amazing how many people can be influenced. I whole-heartedly believe in CharacterStrong and I am grateful for the opportunity to spread character development throughout the world.”


2016 Grad ~

“At a recent CharacterStrong training a teacher asked me why and how I got involved in the company and I told her that I was one of John’s old students and she began to cry. I don’t think I fully realized that my high school experience was a bit extraordinary until this moment. I was of course grateful for the opportunities I had in high school - to study and practice leadership and to participate in building a culture of kindness - but seeing this teacher’s reaction made me think a little harder. My initial response was that perhaps my time at Sumner was not normal. Maybe this grand idea of making kindness normal is a rarity - too much of a stretch. When I reflected more, I think this teacher’s tears speak to the fact that this grand idea is possible. I remember helping with bleacher clean-up after Friday night football, getting to school before sunrise to help set up our annual Community Dinner, and being warmly welcomed by students and staff at the door every single morning as I entered the building (there truly wasn’t a day missed). I remember pulling all-nighters with my leadership team handwriting hundreds of notes of kindness to put in every locker in hopes of making each individual feel like they belonged at our school. I remember my senior-year teachers gifting me a painting easel when I was going through a rough time. At the heart of it all was relationships.

The relationship-oriented mission we embodied at Sumner High School is exactly what we pursue as a company at CharacterStrong. Not only is this the ultimate goal that permeates our curriculum and trainings, but it is what we act on internally as teammates. I get to wake up each day and go to work surrounded by people who love people. Many of my teammates are also past students - a testament to the purposefulness and timelessness of this work. What we are collectively doing, as a community, to strengthen empathy and compassion in schools touches on something very real, very possible, and very human and I’m excited to be a part of all of it.” 




















If you are ever questioning whether the hard work you are doing is purposeful and making an impact, we hope these stories are proof of the positive influence educators like you are having on students. We encourage you to continue to do the work so that more stories like ours can live on.



Julia Payne

Julia recently graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in Psychology, Medical Anthropology, and Global Health. At UW, she was involved in the Dream Project and Pipeline Project to support K-12 students in finding both academic and personal success. She is very passionate about social justice and believes that improving our education system through social-emotional learning is a strong way to address social inequity. She enjoys handling logistics for CharacterStrong and centers her efforts on coordinating educator trainings.