High school senior Natalie Hampton knows what it’s like to eat lunch alone. In junior high, she experienced bullying and harassment so severe that she eventually transferred to a different school. As she shared with Making Caring Common, “More than any of the physical attacks or verbal bullying, [eating lunch alone] demonstrated to me how ostracized I was from my school community, and it grew to be more hopeless as more and more people walked past my table without stopping.”
This experience stuck with her and led her to develop Sit With Us, an app that makes it easy for students to find a welcoming table at lunch. We asked Natalie about her experience and what advice she has for fostering positive school communities.
The image of someone eating lunch alone will resonate with many of our readers. What was the effect of this experience on you?
When I was in 7th and 8th grade, having to eat lunch alone was an incredibly isolating and embarrassing experience. More than any of the physical attacks or verbal bullying, it demonstrated to me how ostracized I was from my school community, and it grew to be more hopeless as more and more people walked past my table without stopping. Because I had been bullied, all I wanted was for someone to reach out, and I know that if I had had at least one person to confide in, it would have saved me from so much suffering. Once I changed schools, that experience really stuck with me, and it inspired me to invite any students I saw sitting alone over to my table. Through this, I made many close friends, and saw how much they benefited from that simple act of kindness. However, even though I was easily able to help the kids within my own school community, I wanted to do something more.
How did you go from experience to inspiration to app development?
I experienced first-hand that having someone to sit at lunch with saves people from a lot of pain, and could potentially help stop bullying at the source, so I began to brainstorm ideas about how I could spread this message of inclusion. Ultimately, I decided that an app was the best course of action because it could easily reach a huge audience. At fifteen years old, knowing little to no coding, it seemed like an impossible feat but I was committed to this idea, and I wanted to see it through, so I began to draw out concept art. I took a notebook, drew a bunch rectangles, and effectively drew every single page of the app. I drew every function, button, and textbox as I saw it in my head. Then, with the help of a professional coder, I was able to work side by side with him to create our first version, and after months of beta testing and de-bugging, we released it.
How did developing Sit With Us change the way you thought about fostering positive school communities?
Developing Sit With Us really showed me how easy it is to effect positive change in a community. Something as seemingly small as lunch can make huge strides in making a school more inclusive, and simply opening the dialogue about bullying and mental health with students can go a long way. I’ve also found that there are upstanders in every school who are looking for a way to better their communities. I am astounded by the amount of people who have reached out to us and told us about how they are joining the movement to foster positive school communities in any way that they can. It definitely makes me a lot more hopeful for the future.
What role can teachers and administrations play in supporting inclusive environments?
I think teachers and administrations have a lot of power in these situations and can do a lot of good by supporting student measures. First and foremost, students need the resources to get started. Teachers can help incorporate efforts like Sit With Us into the school curriculum, act as faculty advisors to clubs, or help amplify their voices at school assemblies or school district meetings. Also, if inclusive environments are encouraged and adopted by the staff, it becomes a community norm.
What do you know now that you wish you had known when you were in junior high?
When I was being bullied, I thought the suffering would never end. As cliché, as it is, I wish had known that it gets better!
Watch a video of Natalie at TEDxTeen in London: