Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty
March 31, 2017 10:00 AM

Even as far back as middle school, Meghan Markle had a fierce protective streak.

“She was like the den mom, always looking out for people,” recalls Charisse Tran, who overlapped with the Suits star at Immaculate Heart middle and high school in Los  Angeles.

A grade younger than Markle, Tran first glimpsed the actress’s feisty kindness in seventh grade after she came to Tran’s defense in the school’s breakroom. “I had bought popcorn from the vending machines and put it in the microwave — then 10 seconds later, two older girls came in and just took it out and started talking,” Tran tells PEOPLE.

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“I was pretty insecure, and I didn’t know how to stick up for myself, but then Meghan Markle came from out of nowhere and goes to them, ‘We don’t do that here.’ And she took their food out and put my popcorn back in there. She stood up to some high schoolers for me.”

Adds Tran: “Ever since then, I’ve been a Meghan Markle fan!”

A small gesture, sure, but according to those who have known her over the years, it’s quintessential Meghan.

“She was always really encouraging, even in middle school,” recalls Tran, who performed in school musicals with the then-budding star. “She was definitely really popular, but never gave off a mean-girl vibe at all.”

While her talent was clear early on, it was also her personality that stood out. “She was really outgoing, she wasn’t shy and she was never mean,” she says. “She was always bubbly and smiley, always had a big happy smile.”

In other words, Markle’s a catch – and more than worthy of Prince Harry, her former classmates maintain. “We actually think it’s not that she scored, but that he scored!” says Tran. “He’s getting a good one.”

  • For more about Markle and Prince Harry’s romance, pick up this week’s PEOPLE, on stands today.

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