Breathing Fire, A Revolution, & Other Stories from a Changemaker


My mind is still reeling from spending the day with changemaker Adam Braun, the founder and CEO of the for-purpose organization Pencils of Promise (I’m going to use the term for-purpose, as it is a better indication of the organization than the term non-profit).  Between engaging in a professional development workshop with student affairs colleagues, enjoying a small dinner outing, and attending his talk with students, I was immersed in a day full of inspiration that will change and inform my decisions and behavior for the rest of my life.  Adam founded his for-purpose organization less than five years ago with a $25 deposit.  Now they’ve built 100 schools in the developing world, seen actual improvements in learning outcomes of students, and gained half a million followers across social media.  I used to consider myself an entry-level student affairs professional, but thanks to Adam, I recognize what I am now: a Changemaker.  Inspiring college students to make change in their lives, careers, and their communities is what I am meant to do right now.  With his words, “find your revolution”, I am starting to find mine.

I spent some time over the past 24 hours really synthesizing his message and making it relevant to my life and experiences.  Here are three of my major takeaways to help “breathe your fire”.

Find your story.

I truly believe that storytelling is the most important skill you can develop to connect, share, and educate others about your cause. Maybe you’ve been inspired by someone, like Adam, whose grandmother was a Holocaust survivor forced to leave her education at age 14.  He dedicated the first Pencils of Promise school in her name.  Maybe you were a huge nerd in high school and wrote and self-published a young adult novel (me).  Saying, “I work with college students… er… but I’m not a professor…” is not going to inspire anyone.  Adam explained that he would go out of his way to “spill his soul”, even for just a single person, because of the potential impact it could have.  Develop your story – it will be worth it.


Write, write write.

If you read any of my blog posts, you know I’m a broken record on the topic of reflection.  However, writing is cathartic.  Take time to reflect on the day-to-day challenges that bog you down.  Even better, jot down the little things that inspire and excite you.  Reading a marble composition book from my teenage years today brings back memories that I would normally never remember, and it helps inform my work with students today.  Adam recommended using a journal that you really love, so you want to go back to writing in it every day.  I am making a commitment to myself to really write – it’s a passion of mine – and hopefully it will inspire others to write as well.


Adam sought out his personal struggle by traveling alone throughout the world, immersing himself in different cultures and learning languages just to interact with people.  But you don’t need to drop everything in your life and travel the world with a backpack and motorbike.  To be a changemaker, you do need to find things that make you uncomfortable and do them.  Throw your ideas on the table at a meeting full of innovators (maybe one of them will get picked up!).  Eat that weird looking vegetable (maybe you’ll end up cooking an award-winning dish with it!).  Struggle once in a while, and the next time it will get easier.

I know because I felt that struggle.  I pushed for the opportunity to bring Rutgers Changemakers Week to this campus.  I have been lucky enough to meet and learn from Adam and the purposeful promise that he made with his organization. I am in awe of my amazing students and Student Life colleagues who have inspired me in so many ways to take this on and push me toward this reality.  For more information about the initiative or to just share your thoughts, post here or reach out to me on Twitter @kristaknj.


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