Editor’s note: Every year, The Herald Journal profiles one graduating student from each valley high school. Profiled students are selected by administrators at the schools.
Payson Nelson had a tough courseload his senior year even before the coronavirus pandemic hit, but determination and help from his friends and family have helped him through.
"I've always wanted to prove to myself and others that I can do hard things," said Nelson, who has cerebral palsy. "I like to tell people, jokingly, if I can do it, anyone can."
Nelson will be graduating from Ridgeline High School after a senior year with AP Calculus, AP English, and a concurrent enrollment class at Bridgerland Technical College. He'll also be getting his associate's degree in computer science from BTECH this year.
Nelson hopes to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and continue schooling for a career in cybersecurity.
Nelson's interested in social engineering, an aspect of cybersecurity sometimes called "people hacking," where attackers hope to trick users rather than exploit vulnerabilities in software. Common social engineering threats include emails that look legitimate to trick users into clicking a link that downloads malware or takes them to a site where they hand over passwords over to attackers.
Nelson would like to help companies strengthen their defenses against social engineering, working as a penetration tester to find weak links in security before attackers do.
"I think that I can use my disability to my advantage," Nelson said, "because I notice that people are more likely to put their guard down and are more susceptible to me."
Nelson's friends sometimes tease him that he can get away with anything, he said. With a career in cybersecurity, he hopes to use that ability to help people — sometimes by tricking them first, before attackers can.
The Nelson family is feeling proud of Payson's senior year, but it was touch-and-go for a while. His mother, Kristi Nelson, said Payson had been used to getting all A's and B's in his classes, but taking AP Calculus and AP English really piled on the stress.
"It kind of took him down for a minute, and he kind of had a hard patch," Kristi said. "And then the coronavirus came and it really took him down, and so we had to get him on some medicine. And his grades went zooming down, but I tell you, after we got him back up, he started working his little tail-end off, and we've seen a side of him that was really fantastic to see."
After classes moved to an online format in an effort to help slow the virus, Payson missed face-to-face interaction with teachers. He lives close to a friend, however, who's been helping him with coursework. He also makes sure to keep up with friends via video chat.
"We don't have to be socially distant, it's just physically distant," Nelson said. "So we can find other ways to be with people."
Nelson used to think of himself as an introvert, but he's really been missing socialization during the pandemic. He hasn't gone to any high school dances — he planned to attend his first two this year, but both were canceled.
Despite missing his friends, events and many of the traditions of graduation, Nelson said he believes social distancing precautions are important.
"There are sacrifices that we all need to make," Nelson said. "It doesn't take very many people to make it have a huge negative effect on our community."
In addition to his rigorous courseload this year, after the pandemic Payson also became his youngest sibling's main teacher.
"Payson is my youngest's teacher," Kristi said, "because … Payson is the only one that he works with."
All of her children have responded to the pandemic differently, Kristi said.
"I didn't go to school to be a teacher," Kristi said. "And I don't know how to be a teacher, seven teachers for Payson, seven different teachers for my other two sons that are in high school and junior high."
So when one child steps up to help another, like Payson has, Kristi appreciates it profoundly.
"It's wonderful to see that," Kristi said. "I just cry sometimes to see that working."