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Guiding the journey from high school to college – 2016 SEMO Counselor of the Year

Erica Snelson, a college counselor at Grand Center Arts Academy, is reading an email from a parent. It’s a thank you note – a personal message with words such as appreciation, trust and reassurance. A mother feels a little less worried about her child “making the journey” from high school toward college.

Snelson is in her third year at GCAA, a Confluence Charter School. She started her career as a high school special education teacher; she’s been a counselor for six years. She’s worked for Lift for Life Academy and Construction Careers Center - both public charter schools - in her 15 years as a professional.

On October 1, she will be among the honorees at the St. Louis American Foundation’s Salute to Excellence in Education Scholarship and Awards Gala. Snelson is the 2016 Southeast Missouri State University Counselor of the Year.

“It was a total surprise,” said Snelson, who got a call from James Williams, a colleague at SEMO, who told her she was chosen for the award.

“As more people know about it, and they’re telling me about the program and other educators who’ve been recognized, it feels like much more of an honor than I realized,” she said. “I’m excited, but I’m nervous. I’m not used to having so much attention.”

“Erica Snelson has a heart for students and her passion is contagious! She is relentless in her efforts to see students succeed, and she models what a life-long learner looks like,” said Gina Washington-Jeffries, director of SIUE East St. Louis Charter High School, mentor and former principal at Construction Careers Center.

“Ms. Snelson has worked tirelessly to ensure the success of our students since coming to Grand Center Arts Academy,” said Dr. Matt Frederickson, head of school. “Students in our first graduating class, who walked across the stage in May 2016, were accepted into prestigious colleges and universities across the country. 

“We’ve had our first Missouri Scholars Academy attendees, our first Bright Flight recipient for ACT scores, and 49 percent of our seniors scored a 21.5 or higher composite on the ACT. We couldn’t have done all of this without the leadership, team work and selfless service of Ms. Snelson working to provide opportunities for our students,” said Frederickson.

So, what is it about being a counselor that keeps her interested?

“It’s the ability to be part of something that benefits people, and to make an impact on a person. It’s breaking down the realities of where a student is and where he can go, and to build students back up. It’s helping a student realize their potential, something they may not believe in for themselves. I work to help bring it out,” said Snelson.

“In the community we serve, we have to educate the families and the students. Many students are first-generation, so they aren’t familiar with things like a FAFSA. They need encouragement to think bigger. And their parents need to realize the options and the potential for college.

“Parents are afraid to ask questions, too. I’m here to support and help navigate the process, not to judge.”

The relationships she has with students keeps her interested, too.

“I talk to so many of my former students on a daily basis. They trust that I’ll have their best interest at heart.”

She smiles as she tells a personal story about a former student.

When Snelson was a first-year teacher at 22 years old, she was introduced to a freshman student. “We had an instant connection.” The following year, in 10th grade, the student had a baby girl. Yet, she graduated at the top of her high school class.

“We’ve always been in contact. We’ve been part of each other’s family,” said Snelson. “Now, her daughter is a seventh grader at GCAA.”

Snelson humbly acknowledged the family chose GCAA because of her.