Growing Through Discomfort

Julianne Puente ’91’s Journey in Jordan
By Suzy Akin

A career educator learns the growth that comes from learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Julianne Puente ’91 claimed Hackley as her own the first time she came to campus with her father. “We didn’t know a school like this could exist. My father asked, ‘What do you think?’ and I said, ‘I want to come here.’”

Accepted to Hackley for Upper School, she became a scholar and a three-sport athlete, winning the Parker Cup and the Mother’s Association Bowl, and returned to Hackley as a teacher after graduating from Cornell. “I thought I was going to be an attorney,” she says. “I thought I’d intern at Hackley for a year or two.” But she came and never looked back.

“I love saying I am a career educator — no stops,” she says, observing that the financial aid she received gave her access to a first rate education — and she made it her mission to give that to other kids. In her 14 years on the Hackley faculty, she served more in so many different roles it would be impossible to capture all of them—Boarding Associate, Assistant College Counselor, Associate Director of Admissions, musician extraordinaire, Dean, History teacher, and State Championship-winning Varsity Coach.

Julianne might have been comfortable spending her career at Hackley, but “comfort” is not what calls her the most.

In the Fall of 2008, former Hackley colleague John Leistler called Julianne from Amman, Jordan. He had joined the faculty of King’s Academy, and asked if she would be interested in working in Jordan. By January, she was entertaining offers from King’s and another school when the Middle School gathered in Allen Memorial Hall to watch President Obama’s first inaugural address. She remembers, “I was with my closest friends and my students and it was a day of enormous hope.” She later told Headmaster Walter Johnson that she was inspired by Obama’s words encouraging Americans to do their part in the world.

On that day, after hearing Obama’s address, she turned to her friend and colleague Jenny Leffler and said, “I’m going to Jordan.”

In 2009, Julianne was appointed as Deputy Headmaster for Student Life and Dean of Students at King’s Academy in Jordan. His Majesty the King of Jordan created this extraordinary school because he wanted to offer students in Jordan and, more broadly, the Middle East, the kind of liberal arts boarding school education he experienced at Deerfield. It graduated its first class in 2010, placing Julianne among the leaders who would celebrate that historic occasion.

Yet talking about her work over this past decade at King’s, she reflects, “It was about learning how to be comfortable being uncomfortable...all of the time.”

Even ten years later, Julianne still considers King’s “a start up,” with all the inherent challenges. She says, “I knew within a day of being there that what needed to be done was huge.” Unable to speak the language, she had to rely on others to communicate for her. “It was humbling,” she says, but this also helped her forge meaningful relationships with the people with whom she worked.

And so began the learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.

King’s set out to offer education rooted in 21st century learning standards that include communication, creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking. Julianne says, “Students are encouraged to question everything around them, including the political systems, social constructs, gender roles, and cultural norms. That is part of why the school was founded.”

This can cause tension — but that tension is where the learning and growth happen. “The inquiry and active debate this provokes are what we need here,” Julianne says. “Where else could this happen? Talk about being part of something bigger than yourself,” she reflects. “We have been able to build something really great and special out there.”

Her Headmaster, John Austin, observes that Julianne arrived at King’s at just the right time. “She’s so full of energy, initiative and creativity,” he reflects, “and she loves thinking through complex problems. She’s just an amazing person.” He believes Julianne has been instrumental in bringing the school forward, building great teams of people. “Her dedication and loyalty and commitment to kids is the thing that distinguishes her,” he says, noting that she clearly brought the lessons gained at Hackley as a scholar-athlete and a coach to her role at King’s in ways that have helped the school achieve its mission.

The New Yorker called the school, at its founding, “Deerfield in the Desert.” While it was a catchy phrase, it was wrong. “You cannot transplant the culture of one school and put it into another,” Julianne says. And in the beginning, it didn’t work very well. “It took all of us all working together to achieve the School’s vision of a liberal arts experience that was also organic and authentically ‘Jordan.’”

This depended in part on bringing Jordanians into leadership roles at the school. When Julianne arrived, many of the administrators were ex pats who lacked a natural cultural bridge to the students in their care. “It seemed like Boarding School 101 to have people who understand the language and the culture living with the kids,” she says. The faculty and staff speak different languages, practice different religions, different politics, have different views on education, and our challenge is to come together to create a common vocabulary, understanding and ethos. And then we’re going to throw several hundred teenagers into the mix.”

Julianne had to bridge cultures as well, which depended on learning and developing the patience to listen well and hear the things that are unsaid. For example, she talks about meetings with parents and others in the school community, at which, she says, “Greetings are generally a bit longer than I was used to, living in New York.” At first, she didn’t see the value in the elaborate exchange of information that was common to greetings in Jordan, but she came to understand and appreciate the value in that exchange. She reflects, “There’s a lot to be learned from how it’s done in the Arab world. What’s actually happening through all that ‘hello’ is us establishing some common ground, and then you can go on from there to solve the real problems. There is something about genuine hospitality and kindness that makes anything possible.”

Now, she says, “If people ask me why I have been successful, I say I’ve had 10,000 cups of tea. Talking and listening. You need to hear their stories — and the stories are really powerful.” What we might watch on our news about distant chaos in the Middle East is human, individual, and specific in Jordan. She says, “It’s stories like ‘My house was destroyed.’ Or, ‘I’m Syrian, and I can’t go home.’”

The view from her office on campus is bucolic and peaceful, and yet, in the ten years she has lived there, the region has weathered a financial crisis, Arab Spring, the Syrian civil war, insurgents in Iraq, a war in Yemen, the United States moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and more.

“But for us,” she says, “no matter what...we get up and go to school. No matter what is happening in the world. For us, it’s bigger than a school. If you can’t get it done on a school level, then what hope is there on a political level, or on a world stage?”

We get up and we go to school, and so there is hope for the world stage.

Reflecting on the challenges her time in Jordan has presented, Julianne is grateful for the profound ways in which her worldview has changed. She’s grateful, too, for the opportunity to learn to be a better listener, and the humility that comes along with it.

Perhaps most of all, she is proud of having learned to fail forward — to become willing to try things, take risks, acknowledge and learn from failure, and try again. She says, “I don’t think I would have understood that until I went and failed some. The sun rises the next day. That’s one of the greatest gifts you can give kids!”

Reflecting on Hackley’s mission statement, she reflects, “‘Unreserved effort is just that — it’s not about the outcome, it’s about the process. I’m not talking about decisions that are moral...I’m talking about going for it.”

While Julianne looks forward to another 20 or 30 years as an educator, she already knows how she wants to end her career. “I miss game day,” she says. “You just don’t have that in Amman. The idea of ‘Today’s Horace Mann!’ and high fives with your athletes in the halls.” The dread of the long bus ride out to Brooklyn for the Poly Prep game. The excitement and collective joy the day after a big win. “At the end of my career, I’d be very happy teaching one or two sections of eighth grade history and coaching. Hitting ground balls, taking shots on the soccer field. It’s a nice life.”

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Jenny Leffler on Julianne Puente '91

Julianne Puente '91 and Margaret Scarcella '84

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Suzy Akin is Hackley’s Director of Communications and Community Relations.

King’s Academy photographs provided by Robina Studios, Wasim Ayesh and Julianne Puente. Other photographs by Chris Taggart and Armando Passarelli.