Student Spotlight: Jennifer Payne

Happiness Can be Found Even in the Darkest of Times: Jennifer Payne and The Schweitzer Fellows

Jennifer PayneEach year, The Schweitzer Fellowship selects up to 16 graduate students across the state of Alabama to become Albert Schweitzer Fellows. Once selected, these students each plan a year-long service project to address a variety of public health issues in their community.

Normally, these students come from medical, dental or nursing programs, and their projects reflect those practices. Jennifer Payne, a counseling graduate student at UM, has quietly made Schweitzer history as the program’s first counseling fellow.

Payne knew her project would be inherently different from those of the other fellows in her class. However, she went with what she knew and decided to combine the healing power of group therapy with the inspiring journey of one famed boy wizard.

Each week Payne meets with a group of high school students enrolled in The Day Program of Shelby County to read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the first book in the beloved seven-part series.

The Day Program provides at-risk youth with the resources and tools necessary to overcome factors that run the gamut from bad homes to financial issues to criminal activity.

Payne, a longtime Potter fan, began to draw parallels between the heroic but sad journey of the central character, one steeped in themes of loss, resiliency, bullying and self-discovery, with the tough lives of her young students.

Each week, Payne and her students read on Tuesdays and then discuss the reading on Thursdays during group therapy.

In the initial sessions, she faced the apathy and disinterest that normally culminates in teenagers forced to read something new.

However, within a few months, the group began to show genuine excitement about the readings. Word spread, and other students from the program began asking Payne if they could join the group.

“One of the powerful things about reading is it teaches empathy. Sometimes it’s easier to talk about what the character is going through,” said Payne.

Payne not only wanted to introduce her students to the Harry Potter story, but to the rich culture of fandom that accompanies it.

To do this, she used class time to allow the students to take the popular online Pottermore sorting quiz, so they could each be sorted into one of the four fictional Hogwarts houses.

Once the students were all sorted, they walked into their next class session to find owl balloons tied to their desks. Each balloon held an individualized acceptance letter, complete with a wax seal, announcing their status as true Hogwarts students.

“Sometimes it’s not about the perfect technique or activity, but about bringing yourself to the table and being present,” Payne said. “We’re human; we don’t always have the answer. But being present and showing you care about the other person in the room, that’s what can make a difference.”

According to Kristin Boggs, program director of the Alabama chapter of The Schweitzer Fellowship, Payne’s innovative project and presence has enhanced the program for the better.

“Overall, she’s been an amazing representative of The Schweitzer Fellowship, and I look forward to working with her for years to come as a Fellow for Life,” said Boggs.